Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Bartók the pianist, Bartók’s piano music @ Wigmore Hall, London

12 June 2006

No doubt, Wigmore Hall’s Bartók Festival aimed to introduce London audiences to a cross-section of Bartók’s piano music as well as to his relationship to the piano, both as a composer and a pianist.

Notwithstanding the excellent intention (for which thanks are due) and several high standard performances, however, the delivery was only partially successful. For the concert on Friday, 9 June, Professor Malcolm Gillies gave us a pre-concert talk at 6pm on Bartók the pianist.

He started by playing Bartók’s 1929 recording of his famous Allegro Barbaro. Professor Gillies did not mention that while Bartók played his Allegro Barbaro in numerous concerts, he resented being asked to perform the piece again and again: indeed, he complained that he was becoming known as the composer of only the Allegro Barbaro. Professor Gillies suggested that, while pianists and composers of the 19th century tried to make the piano sound like string or wind instruments or the organ, Bartók wanted to exploit the percussive side of the instrument. Gillies believes that Bartók composed with the mind-set of the pianist as he composed between his desk and the piano. I was glad to hear that Bartók was ‘the Donald Tovey of Hungary’ as this attribution has created an immediate link between Bartók the editor of classical piano repertoire and Professor Gillies’ predominantly English audience.

It was a pity that we listened to a Scarlatti sonata played by Bartók in 1929 but Gillies omitted to mention that this recording was only made public after Bartók’s death as he did not give his permission for commercial release. As mentioned by Gillies, Bartók became very interested in baroque music in mid-1920s and subsequently both his piano compositions and his piano playing changed. His playing was crisp, clear; his style was built around the concept of registers. Bartók’s aim was the projection of the composer (be it himself or any other composer whose piece he performed), not the projection of the performer.

At 7 pm, with only 10 minutes break after Professor Gillies’ talk, we heard a marathon concert of Bartók piano pieces performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich. Both pianists are outstanding artists and they played all the compositions with the musicality, virtuosity and care which these Bartók pieces need and deserve. This is no mean feat as some of them (such as the Three Studies) are extremely difficult.

But these artists seemed to play for themselves (as well, of course, for the composer): they did not seem to wish to communicate/share with the audience their obvious appreciation of the music which they performed so well. True, they were hindered by several factors. Both pianists played all pieces from the music: this was unavoidable and usual in the compositions for two pianos (Seven Pieces from Mikrokosmos, Sonata for two pianos and percussion) but more unusual in pieces for solo pianist. The placing of the two pianos on the small Wigmore stage was also problematic: they were in opposite directions but behind each other, though the actual keyboards and players were visible on the left and right of the stage.

The worse problem in accommodation on stage occurred in the grand finale, the Sonata for two pianos and percussion. The two percussion players (Colin Curry and Sam Walton) and their numerous instruments were at the back of the stage. The instruments were invisible, and the players were evident only by their heads. Unfortunately, this forced arrangement on such a small stage influenced the sound too: we heard nowhere near as much from the percussion instruments as Bartók clearly intended. Fortunately, the BBC recorded this performance for broadcast on Radio 3 on 25 June. As the microphones were well placed for percussion instruments as well as for the pianos, hopefully justice will be done both to the composition as well as to the excellent performers.

And last but not least: though we were able to distinguish between the seven pieces (Nos. 8 -14) from the Fourteen Bagatelles, Op.6, and the three movements of the Sonata beautifully played by Tamara Stefanovich after the interval most, if not all, of the audience (including myself) was lost. Pierre-Laurent Amard played the Three Studies, Op. 18, (seven sections), Four Dirges, Op. 9a, (four sections) and the Out of Doors suite (five sections) without interruptions. Unfortunately a missing dot in the programme note made it impossible to apprehend the seven sections of the Three Studies. Once we were lost, we were lost for ever. Pierre-Laurent Aimard played from the music, beautifully and with admirable virtuosity; he had a page turner but we (the audience) were left behind. Aimard might have wanted to do justice to Bartók (by not having earthly applause between heavenly pieces) or he did not want to waste time on long applause between short pieces. Either way, communication to the audience was somewhat lacking.

The final event of Wigmore Hall’s Bartk Festival was the lunch-time concert given on Monday 12 June by Llr Williams, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist. It is not clear why the Wigmore felt that they needed another piano event after the marathon of the previous Friday. The programme was odd. I can see some point in including pieces from Jtkok by Gyrgy Kurtg (who is fond of saying that his mother tongue was Bartók), La Notte by Liszt (who was a strong influence on Bartók) and Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde.

But why the Toccata in C op.7 by Schumann? It so happens that the piece did not offer us much joy and it rather felt like a warm-up for Williams. The Bartók pieces in the programme (Sonatina, Allegro barbaro and Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs) were played with care and honesty but Williams does not seem to be aware of folk music’s strong influence on Bartók. He produced some delicate phrasing in the Sonatina but the folksy, tight rhythms were missing in Williams’ introvert playing.

The other folk music arrangement by Bartók on this concert was the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs: Williams played this set from the score, indicating that perhaps he learnt it for this particular concert. The playing was acceptable but far removed from the folk sources. The Allegro Barbaro was careful (rather than barbaric): perhaps Williams should listen to some Arabic drumming to get the flavour of the piece. The Kurtg and Liszt pieces seemed to suit Williams very well. Nevertheless, some tension in him was evident even in these pieces.

Sadly, though this recital was scheduled as the crowning final concert of the Bartók Festival (and it was broadcast live on Radio 3), the actual programme was questionable and the standard was not quite as high as of those of the preceding concerts during this excellent festival.

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