Bartók Piano Concerto no. 2, Sz. 95, BB 101

performed by Leif Ove Andsnes and the Berlin Philharmonic under Pierre Boulez, or below by the Géza Anda and the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink

Since we discussed the first piano concerto earlier this week, I’d like to suggest you first go read that article if you haven’t already. And even if you have, let’s watch Sir András Schiff discuss, in his concise eloquence, the Bartók concertos:

He mentions the first as a work of genius, a mature, challenging piece that was never much of a success in performance, at least in the composer’s day. As Schiff says with a smile, in the second concerto, Bartók wanted to “write a more accessible piece,” which Schiff says is “hardly more accessible, and for the piano player, it’s a finger-breaking piece.” Schiff is an astonishingly accomplished pianist, and yet he calls it “probably the single most difficult piece that I’ve ever played, and I usually end up with a keyboard covered by blood, literally,” and that’s where he ends his discussion of the second.

Bartok wouldn’t disagree, though. Even he called it “a bit difficult—one might even say very difficult!—as much for orchestra as for audience.” That being said, it seems the work didn’t have much difficulty getting its premieres in various places not too long after its completion. The world premiere came about two years after its completion in 1931. IT was first performed by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hans Rosbaud with the composer as soloist. The Hungarian premiere was later that year under Otto Klemperer, but not with the composer as soloist.

Elsewhere, Edward Clark arranged for the composer to perform the work at The Proms under Sir Henry Wood in 1936, but this is not definitely the English premiere. As Wiki states, however, it did come a full three years before the American premiere, given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock with Storm Bull as soloist. Shockingly, almost disgustingly, the French premiere was given by Yvonne Loriod, who “had learnt it in only eight days,” as stated here. Incredible.

The first concerto already comes a decade after the string quartet we discussed over the weekend, and this piece another five years after that. The immediate standout, for me, is how much fuller it is than the first. If you haven’t listened to the first concerto, please go do so. It’s certainly nice enough, but strikes me as a little sparse. It’s a shorter work, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.

It doesn’t compare, though, with the exuberance and toothsomeness of this second, maybe more famous (?) concerto. There’s a brassy, heady aroma given off by the trumpet theme at the beginning of this, and is kind of like a flashlight, the beacon that leads us through this piece. You’ll hear it a few times in the first movement at least.

This work, like the second quartet we talked about last weekend, is in an “arch form,” something the composer apparently did often. In the second quartet, we had rather different first and final movements surrounding an importantly lively central movement, with the first and third sharing material. Here we have the same, but it’s not just fast-slow-fast like you’d expect from a typical three-movement concerto. Wiki points out that it’s fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, the central “slow-fast-slow” afforded by a central movement with a central contrasting section.

The first movement shimmers and glistens, with an active, effervescent piano sound and that important trumpet line. But it’s not all just bounce; there’s plenty of bite here. You’ll recall that percussion played an important part in the first concerto, and this work has plenty of piquant percussiveness and rhythmic intensity, while being a little more full-bodied. It’s these flavors that make up the overall palette of this entire work, really, a captivating, electrifying intensity. I don’t often associate music with any particular foods or flavors, but grapefruit specifically comes to mind here, or maybe blood orange. Why? Maybe let’s talk about the other two movements first.

After the first movement, full of boldness and contrasts and fragrance and punch, and compelling cohesiveness, the opening of the second movement is serene, still. Magically, elegantly, after strings have revealed this tranquil landscape, there’s a quiet timpani roll that introduces the piano, and these two instruments have a captivating little dialogue that forms the first part of this ternary-style movement. Their conversation increases in intensity, but ultimately dies away before the piano returns to introduce a faster passage. It’s chaotic against the earlier landscape, almost serving the purpose of a scherzo wedged right into this slow movement. The movement mostly returns to the tranquility of the opening before ending slightly ominously.

The instant impression of the opening of the final movement is that the timpani has returned for revenge. It fires a shot that begins the finale, the shortest movement of this work, but it doesn’t devolve into fire and brimstone. Do you remember the outlines and curves and color and fragrance of the opening movement? We can hear it all again here in the finale, the same but different, matured or transformed, like an aged wine, or at least one that’s been aerated. It’s all here, but not quite the same. It also has the same pause/restatement that we heard in the beginning of the first movement. Listen for that trumpet line again, and for some Stravinskian energy and rhythmic flare, which isn’t to say Bartók doesn’t have plenty of his own. The closing phrases of this work are really wonderful!

I don’t want to use words like ‘mature’ to describe this piece, because, again, the first concerto wasn’t an early, immature effort; it’s just that I feel this is fuller somehow, weightier. It’s satisfyingly cohesive, unified from beginning to end, but also showing growth and travel and transformation. It’s really a very satisfying concerto, not just a piece of piano showmanship or a collection of pretty sounds. It’s really genius.

And on that note, how about what I said earlier about grapefruit? Well, for me at least, grapefruit was something I found overwhelmingly bitter as a child. It had a tartness and some sweetness that I wanted to like, but it wasn’t as straight up sweet as orange juice, say. I did not care for it at all.

But as you grow up, or as our tastes change, or whatever, we begin to have an appreciation for tastes and depth of flavor that we didn’t as kids, and that bitterness becomes something attractive, mellows out. Grapefruit didn’t change, obviously. You did.

When I first listened to these works, they were a bit chaotic to me, acrid even, because I was cutting my classical music teeth on the piano concertos of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Schumann, and Grieg. But the more one listens to all kinds of music, you find things that strike you in different ways, begin to grow on you in a specific way, and that particular pungent, fragrant boldness is something that took a little bit of getting used to with Bartók’s piano concertos, but I absolutely relish them now, and I hope you can too. They’re modern for sure, but not really all that challenging if you can do Stravinsky or Shostakovich or anything like that. He has a very particular voice, and that’s for the better.

We haven’t quite finished yet with Bartók. We’ve got one more little piece of his we’ll be doing on the weekend before moving on to something really entirely different and much more intimidating, but I am looking forward to it, so please do stay tuned, and as always, thank you so much for reading. Később találkozunk!

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