Bartók’s piano concertos – the pianist’s sternest test

Geoffrey Norris Tue 9th February 2016

Tackling Bartók’s three piano concertos is tantamount to conquering Mount Everest – but is the view from the summit worth the climb, asks Geoffrey Norris

Bartók – and perhaps especially the Bartók of the piano concertos – tends to divide opinion. There are those who find them arid and charmless. There are others who relish the invigorating energy of the rhythms and the vibrancy of the colour and are thrilled by the spectacle of performers surmounting music that so obviously and uncompromisingly poses supreme challenges. There are those who like the harmonic and folk-like tonal tang of Bartók. There are those who go even further and place Bartók on a par with Bach and Beethoven, drawing him into the pantheon of composers who transmitted through their music a palpable sense of spirituality and humanity. For many of us, the response to the piano concertos is probably an amalgam of some or all of these views, depending in part on which of the three concertos we are talking about. They are all different in temperament.

Bartók followed the barbarously percussive, dissonant First Concerto of 1926 with a Second (1930‑31), which still capitalises fully on a soloist’s virtuosity while sparing the piano some of its crueller battering. After several more years came the Third (1945), which is altogether of a gentler, more reflective if scarcely (in the outer movements) less dynamic mien. András Schiff describes it as “a wise man’s farewell”: together with the Viola Concerto, it was one of the very last pieces that Bartók wrote. So, was Bartók wise to write the other two concertos, or indeed to add a third? His piano concertos are not these days regarded as good box office in the way that, say, Rachmaninov’s Third or some of Prokofiev’s are. Bartók’s concertos seem to need a special reason for being included in a programme, be it a particularly lustrous artist or that they are part of a series featuring either the composer himself or Hungarian music in general.

In the record catalogue, too, the Rachmaninov and Prokofiev concertos vastly outweigh Bartók. It is hard to determine why that should be the case. Are the concertos rarely performed because they are not popular, or are they not popular because they are seldom performed? In a pragmatic sense, the comparative sparsity of performances could well be explained by finance or, at least, by the demands of orchestral schedules. Particularly in this straitened age when rehearsal costs have to be ruthlessly budgeted, the hours needed to get the First Concerto up to scratch could be punitive. Even present-day British orchestras, acknowledged for their swift, reliable sight-reading, have been known to find a first run-through of the First Concerto troublesome. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is said to be a doddle by comparison. Most orchestras know The Rite; the concerto is unfamiliar and its tricky, asymmetrical rhythms and orchestral complexities are so problematic as to make coordination at speed a formidable ordeal. Bartók, if still keeping the pianist on his toes and by no means sacrificing orchestral brilliance, made the interaction between the two forces in the Second Concerto more manageable and in the Third Concerto even more so.

Maybe difficulty has been a constant impediment to the concertos’ more frequent airings. When Sir Henry Wood introduced the First Concerto to the Proms in 1930, he commented that “Bartók is certainly an original composer, but he is a trifle too fastidious for Promenade productions, for he demands more time than it is possible to give at rehearsals.” Bartók knew this to be true. An orchestra in Berlin wanted to do a radio broadcast of the First Concerto in 1939 but he sent a letter to the organisers saying that “the orchestral part of this piano concerto is extraordinarily difficult and if the conductor and the orchestra are not absolutely first-class, and if there is no adequate time for rehearsals, it would be better to abandon the performance”. He added, bearing in mind the Nazis’ suppression of music that they regarded as insidious: “I am, by the way, astonished that such ‘degenerate’ music should be selected for – of all things – a radio broadcast.”

Bartók, a pianist of exceptional powers, wrote the first two concertos for himself to perform, realising, as did Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, that audiences were particularly enraptured by the idea of a composer/pianist and that by playing his own works he could not only reach a wider public but also make a decent living. The Third Concerto was written for his second wife, Ditta, in the hope that it would give her some sort of legacy after his death, both in terms of her own profile as a pianist (though she seems never to have played it in public) and in the income she might accrue from royalties when it was taken up by others. Indeed, the concertos were enthusiastically embraced by the Hungarian pianist Géza Anda after the war and he made landmark recordings of them with the conductor Ferenc Fricsay in the 1960s. György Sándor was another dedicated champion and there have been other distinguished Hungarian pianists – including András Schiff – who have shown marked affinities with their countryman on disc and in the concert hall. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is not, as he readily acknowledges, Hungarian. “When programming Bartók, you don’t straight away think of a French pianist,” he says, but he has a Hungarian wife, two daughters who speak fluent Hungarian, and he worked on his Bartók with Sir Georg Solti, one of the composer’s great advocates. Bavouzet, who has produced exceptional recordings of the Bartók concertos for Chandos, is the ardent admirer who mentions Bartók in the same breath as Bach and Beethoven as a composer who wanted his music to “save the soul”, the paradox being that his music often “focused on folklore and local ideas but at the same time transcended to the whole of humanity”.

It is a boost to the Bartók cause to have artists such as Bavouzet, when you remember that a New York critic wrote of the First Concerto in 1928 that “there were broken bits of themes hammered out on the piano and answered by equally angry blasts of wind instruments. The only sustained motive is that of bitterness and the sum total is unmitigated ugliness.” Prokofiev had to face similar lambasts when he was accused of “either dusting the keyboard or tapping it at random” in playing his own First Concerto in 1913.

Concertos and composers traditionally go in and out of fashion. But time gives us the chance of reassessing the Bartók concertos. The First Concerto is, admittedly, a work that seems to underline a remark by the American composer Ned Rorem, who once page-turned for Bartók and Ditta at a recital in Chicago, that “Bartók’s eyes, like Picasso’s, were rays that pierced to your unworthy soul but, whereas Picasso’s were hot and humorous, Bartók’s were like black ice.” Bartók abjured the “big tunes” and passionate climaxes of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, but there is so much more than piercing blackness to these works – wit, piquancy, dash, daring, exhilaration, power and, in the central movements, that weird, spectral evocation of night and nature that is one of Bartók’s hallmarks. As Bavouzet’s says, “Bartók gives me hope, makes me laugh, brings me to tears and makes me see life in a bigger perspective. He helps me to live.” 

Recommended Recording

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet pf BBC Philharmonic / Gianandrea Noseda

(Chandos)

'If you’re after a disc of Bartók’s piano concertos that maximises on the music’s drive, elegance and sparring potential, then you could hardly do better than this ear-catching new production by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the BBC Philharmonic under the spirited direction of Gianandrea Noseda. Rarely have I encountered a reading of the First Concerto where, in the first movement especially, the sense of instrumental interplay is so consistently vital.' Read the Gramophone review

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This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Gramophone

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