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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
et la virtuosité
Rhapsodie, Op.1 [22’07]
Trois Chants Populaires Hongrois du comté de Csik [3’44]
Trois Burlesques Op.8c [7’25]
Deux Danses Roumaines Op.8a [9’19]
Trois Études Op.18 [8’37]
Deux Élégies Op.8b [16’30]
Takuya Otaki (piano)
rec. 2017, L’Orangerie du Domaine de la Fontaine ŕ Olivet (Loiret)
SOLSTICE SOCD350 [67’49]

It is not unusual for the winners of prominent piano competitions to be awarded the right to make a CD, and this is the case here. In February 2016 Takuya Otaki won the first prize in the Orléans International Competition and in July 2017 recorded this disk. In it some of the piano works of Bartók are explored. They range from the Rhapsody (aged 23) to the Three Etudes (aged 37), and by that age one would expect to hear much of the Bartókian percussive writing that so scares people, even now, nearly 100 years on.

I love the sound of a sonorously recorded piano, and the engineers at Solstice FY have done Otaki proud. A natural reverberance coupled with judiciously placed microphones have resulted in sound of exhibition quality.

The first and earliest piece on the CD is his Op.1 Rhapsody. It is very Lisztian in concept and evokes the Magyarism of his Hungarian Rhapsodies. In 1921, Bartók wrote about this period in his compositional life thus:

‘A really thorough study of Liszt’s œvre, especially some of his less well-known works, like Annees de Pelerinage, Harmonies Poetique et Religieuses, the Faust Symphony, Totentanz and others had, after being stripped of their mere external brilliance which I did not like, revealed to me the true essence of composing’.

The Rhapsody is a most enjoyable piece, and is far from being wholly gymnastic. Instead, we have technical brilliance modified by rhapsodic and often meltingly beautiful episodes, and at over 22 minutes in length, it needs, and here gets, variety in both content and performance. Bartók orchestrated it in 1905, and in that form, has been recorded, at least once, by Zoltán Kocsis and Iván Fischer with the Hungarian Festival Orchestra.

From 1907, not 1917 as the back of the CD case would have it, come the Three Hungarian Folk Songs from Csik (now Cui in Romania). Lasting barely 4 minutes they follow the gentle, almost popular representation of folk music that he was soon to discard, in his desire to present national/regional music in its raw, impactive state.

On hearing the Two Elegies Op.8b from 1908-9, we encounter a more radical Bartók. The first of the two was composed in February 1908, immediately following the emotional upheaval of his unhappy break with the beautiful Stefi Geyer, whose leitmotif infuses the piece in a rhetorical and rhapsodic outpouring, which surely demonstrates rage as well as grief. Less than two years later, in November 1909 Bartók married his first wife, Márta Ziegler, and in December, whilst on honeymoon in Paris, he composed the second of these elegies. It might be expected that the piece would be a joyous affair, but such expectations are unlikely to be gratified; if not atonal, it is certainly highly chromatic and very far from being an easy listen. Rhapsodic? – at times, yes, but ‘exploratory’ would be a better description, I think. He was already starting to receive critical reviews – an ‘ultra-hyper-neo-impressionistic-secessionist’ - by the same critic who had praised the traditional sounding ‘Kossuth’, and this piece shows why.

Next come the Two Rumanian Dances Op.8a, composed in 1910. The first is a pounding, rhythmic affair with the left hand prominent. One can easily imagine a group of villagers, gyrating rhythmically as they dance in the village centre, the fleeter women skipping lightly, and the men stomping vigorously. Bartók has translated this into a mixture of rapid figurations in the right hand and violent percussive chords in the left. He certainly gets across the idea that village dances in the backwoods of Transylvania were not the smoothed, romanticised affairs that had hitherto reached the ears of his middle-class audiences. When they did hear it, it must have sounded like an aural assault! I have been able to compare this performance with that of Zoltan Kocsis on Philips, and he (Koksis) takes parts of it at a fair lick, knocking a full half-minute off Otaki’s rendering, and when the piece only lasts five minutes, that amounts to a 10% reduction. This doesn’t mean that Otaki’s performance sounds slow, but Koksis achieves a greater contrast between the slow and fast sections. The second dance exhibits similar virtuosity, but is, if anything, even bolder in its percussive effects.

The Three Studies Op.18 from 1918 range from two to four minutes in length, and the percussive writing is very evident in the first and third. For me the most interesting is the central Andante sostenuto, in which long waves of impressionistic chords are set against the melody, which almost sounds atonal. Perhaps I am imagining it, but for few moments I could almost hear Messiaen.

The Three Burlesques Op.8c date from 1908-11, but are described as from 1921 on the CD case. It seems that Bartók used three separate Opus lists in own catalogue, and for all I know this may have led to confusion. I have used the detail from David Cooper’s 2015 biography ‘Bela Bartók’, (Yale University Press - review), but I do note that the booklet essay agrees with the biography. The second ‘A bit tipsy’ was orchestrated in 1931 as one of the Hungarian Sketches, and its subject matter is wittily evoked. The first, a scherzando, Bartók said originated from a tiff he had with his fiancé; it is suitably stormy, and the third is strange, with whirring textures in the right hand occasionally interrupted by the left, before anything approaching a recognisable melody emerges towards the end.

In all, this is a varied selection of Bartók’s piano music and Takuya Otaki displays his virtuosity to considerable effect. Coupled with a superb recording and an informative booklet in French and English, this CD deserves to do well.

Jim Westhead



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