Bartók Piano Concerto no. 1, Sz. 83, BB 91

performed by Jean Efflam-Bavouzet and the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski

“My first concerto […] I consider it a successful work, although its style is up to a point difficult, perhaps even very difficult for the orchestra and the public.”

the composer, quoted here

I almost skipped over this work in favor of a concerto from another composer, but you’ll see later this week (maybe) why Bartók’s first piano concerto, a work I wasn’t always very crazy about, but it definitely merits some attention. I also want to say that Jean Efflam-Bavouzet is an astoundingly talented pianist, and it’s been part of the purpose of this piano series to feature some of his recordings, of everything from Beethoven to Bartok. (I don’t know that he’s recorded Boulez, but as I mentioned in an article last week, I heard him play the first Boulez sonata just over two years ago in a concert that was absolutely astoundingly wonderful. He is definitely someone you should come to know about.)

In most of the reading you might come casually come across, you’ll read that this work came after a dry period in the composer’s career, when he hadn’t composed much, or else was at least rethinking his compositional method and moving into what would be his more mature voice. Mark Satola at AllMusic says it this way:

Bartók had spent the summer of 1926 reworking his entire approach to composition, abandoning the traditional concept of theme. Instead, he sought to attain a more basic level of expression, working with motifs or note-cells, with narrow range and simple rhythmic impulses.

That’s something you might have noticed about the composer’s work: it’s very rhythmic, almost aggressively so. In contrast with other early 20th century concertos like those from Rachmaninoff, or even quirkier approaches like Prokofiev, Bartók has a voice all his own, and we hear it in this work. That being said, he’s not ‘finding his way’ as a composer. He was already in his mid-forties by this time. Perhaps the word is consolidating or refining, rather than maturing. The word that is often used is ‘percussive’, and it’s obvious from the get-go of this work, with accented hammering impulses on the low end of the piano.

The work was premiered in Frankfurt, on 1 July, 1927, almost 90 years ago, with Wilhelm Fürtwangler conducting and the composer as soloist. The American premiere was given by the Cincinnati Symphony under Fritz Reiner, also with the composer as soloist. The American premiere was originally to be given by the New York Philharmonic under Mengelberg, but had to be cancelled because they didn’t have enough rehearsal time.

While the music itself isn’t dissonant or atonal or 12-tone or anything, it’s unmistakably modern. He uses whole-tone scales and semitone intervals and stuff like that to give it a kind of…. I don’t know; I’ve always thought of whole-tone scales and music written around it as sounding kind of broad and open, obviously without the elements that give a diatonic scale its progress, but sort of spacious and ambiguous but very lovely sound, like in Berg’s op. 3 string quartet. Of another important quality of the writing style, Wiki tells us:

The concerto comes after an increased interest in Baroque music on the part of Bartók, which is demonstrated by such devices as the increased use of counterpoint. The work, however, retains the harshness and dissonance that is characteristic of Bartók.

Now, you might not hear Baroque in this, but it does have a certain clarity to it, perhaps afforded by that ‘openness’ I hear in its use of whole tones.

Here, though Bartók’s percussiveness and drive kind of override much of the sensual sound. There’s lots of color afforded by the seeming independent functioning of each section of the orchestra: brass with fanfare-ish bits here and there, sparser strings than usual, lots of woodwind color, and of course, the soloist, whose part, aside from the percussive heartbeat of the piece, doesn’t often appear as the shimmering, elegant soloist who so often presents breathtaking melodies for the sheer enjoyment of the audience. It’s a weird piece, really.

The work opens rather ominously, with dark rumblings from the piano in the low register, and brass exclamations that eventually kind of come together in a mildly strident fanfare of sorts, and it’s only after this slow build that the piano officially announces itself as the soloist with a still-percussive but more direct statement. You’ll hear the repeated use of a few figures from this introduction, but there are some really crunchy, rhythmically powerful statements here where we feel all these wild, exciting elements come together. Overall, with its excitement and intensity, there’s a fragrance, an intense flavor that might be an acquired taste, but that you relish once you ‘get it’, like the slight bitterness of a good beer, certain root or spice bitters like you’d find in a good cocktail… does that make sense? It’s a delicious kind of pungency, accented by all sorts of wonderful expression by the orchestra, like the final big swell of the close of the first movement that leads only to a continued statement from the piano before the actual final punch.

The second movement, then, is in some ways even sparser; it is ‘night music’. The first gestures are only from percussion, then piano. Strings are entirely silent, giving us a quiet, even kind of insubstantial movement for the piano accompanied solely by winds and percussion. It’s not void of content or development, as there are themes and melodies and interaction here, but it’s kind of like a slow movement in slow motion, where everything takes place at a broader, less intent speed. It’s there, but it’s not going to jump out and bite you.

The finale, though, will. It’s the shortest movement in the whole work, and to me by far the most exciting. Percussion and brass open, and the piano reappears as the driving force behind the work, incessantly percussive. Despite this incessant nature, some circus-like passages, and even maybe a bit of jazz inspiration, it is what Satola calls “essentially a wild Hungarian dance.”

Overall, the work is chattery, seemingly disjointed and even a little bit harsh, but there was a period where I found myself coming back to it regularly because it scratched a unique itch that no one else’s music could. It’s wild and uninhibited and colorful, but pungent and driving in a very unique way, unlike say Prokofiev or Stravinsky, etc. Despite that potential harshness, or the lack of what would jump out at you as that “oh here’s the pretty melody part” like would be handed to you on a platter from Rachmaninoff or someone, this is a little bit more obscure, not as straightforward, but that’s a criticism. Its charms just aren’t as immediately accessible as some might expect from the typical Romantic piano concerto.

With all that goes on in this work, though, it’s actually only about 23 minutes long, so it’s a dense little package of rhythms and pulses and percussive piano that packs quite a punch, and once you know what to expect from it, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Again with the unfair comparisons, I know, but if you’re looking for sweeping, shiny melodic stuff, you’ll be disappointed. Go listen to Tchaikovsky or Chopin. This is different, and it emphasizes an entirely different quality of the piano.

In fact, it was the composer’s direction that:

The percussion (including timpani) must be placed directly next to the piano (behind the piano).

In fact, I attended (what I’m almost positive was) the Taiwan premiere of this work at the beginning of this year. Can you believe that? 90 years pass and this work hasn’t been premiered on this (granted, very small) island. You can find my review of the evening here, and the nature of the piece very much suited Yuja Wang’s playing.

It’s an interesting work, for sure, maybe something you didn’t think you needed in your music library, but once you hear it, and get it, like tasting that funky drink that the bartender made you at that weird restaurant, you kind of want more of it. If that’s the case, do stay tuned, because there’s more Bartók this week, and if not, then still stay tuned because there’s stuff other than Bartók next week. Thank you so much for reading.

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