Once the door to the world of great music had opened for me, Bela Bartók (1881-1945) was one of the first composers to excite my enthusiasm. I was a high school sophomore when my friend Andy Rangell introduced me to Bartók’s “Six Romanian Folk Dances” – three of which I later learned to play – and it wasn’t long before I had purchased, or borrowed from the public library, recordings of all three of his piano concertos, the two violin concertos, the Concerto for Orchestra, the viola concerto, the six string quartets… and I had only begun to explore the world of Bartók’s music.
A recording of Bartók’s First Piano Concerto was one of my very first records: a 1963 monaural Columbia LP (Does anyone else remember “monaural”?) featuring pianist Rudolph Serkin with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Szell. The liner notes to that album include this brief description of the concerto’s composition, premiere, and critical reception:
Bartók’s First Piano Concerto is not a product of his youth but of his maturity, having been composed in 1926 when he was forty-five years old. The first performance took place the following year in Frankfurt, with Bartók as soloist and Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the orchestra. The work was heard in New York in 1928, and the review [by Henrietta Strauss] in The Nation voiced an unfavorable opinion which is still the common one: “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.”
“Unmitigated ugliness.” How would you like to be remembered for that little bit of wisdom? No one who has listened to this concerto even twice would ever use those words to describe it.
I cannot understand the need some critics seem to feel to savage works and/or performances they don’t like. Is it simply prejudice against something that doesn’t conform to what they know and understand? Do they feel that, in order to be accepted as an authority, they have to speak in such unforgiving absolutes? Why does something new and different evoke their hostility and scorn, rather than excite their curiosity?
I’m reminded of an observation by Sergei Prokofiev, quoted by Harold Schonberg in The Great Pianists:
I wandered through the enormous park in the middle of New York and, looking at the skyscrapers bordering it, I thought with fury of the wonderful American orchestras that cared nothing for my music; of the critics who were repeating for the hundredth time, “Beethoven is a great composer,” while balking violently at new works; of the managers who arranged long tours for artists playing the same hackneyed programs fifty times over.
How much more valuable would the critics’ contribution be if, instead of tearing down what they don’t understand, they made some effort to illuminate it, as Phillip Huscher does here in program notes he wrote for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:
Bartók once remarked that the First Piano Concerto is in E minor, but for him a key, like a piano keyboard, was merely a point of departure for rich adventure. Actually, Bartók uses key signatures here for the last time in a large work (Schoenberg had already given them up for good some twenty years before), but their presence is largely superfluous. The first movement’s careful sonata form, too, simply provides the framework from which Bartók can strike out on his own. The entire movement is breathlessly paced and, despite the appearance of frequent meter changes on the page, what one hears, rather than constantly shifting beats, is the larger overriding drive to the end.
The second movement is a conversation between piano and percussion in which the piano gradually asserts its rightful place as part of the percussion team. (This highly original music is a precursor of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.) At its center is a contrapuntal weaving of woodwind lines in four different keys at once over a stubborn piano ostinato. The finale, which begins without a break, is bold and aggressive. It’s sometimes difficult to reconcile this tough and powerful music with the man who wrote and played it himself, for Bartók was a pale and sickly man all his life. But the music on the page clearly reflects the inner strength that shone from his piercing eyes.
This video features the renowned Italian pianist, Maurizio Pollini, in a brilliant performance from 2001 with the Orchestre de Paris conducted by the estimable Pierre Boulez.