Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary on March 25, 1881, and died in New York City on September 26, 1945. He composed his lone piano sonata in 1926, a banner year for Bartók which also saw the composition of his Out of Doors suite, Nine Little Pieces, and First Piano Concerto. Bartók himself gave the first performance of his sonata in Budapest in December 1926, and it has since become a staple of the pianist’s repertoire.
I was introduced to Bartók’s sonata by my friend, pianist Andrew Rangell, in the high and far-off times when we both were students at the University of Colorado. Andy owned a recording of István Nádas, one of Bartok’s countrymen, playing this and three other 20th century sonatas, and I was immediately captivated by the excitement and power of the piece.
Andy has gone on to forge a long and distinguished career for himself as a performer and recording artist, and in 2013 he released his own recording of this work on the Steinway & Sons label. The CD is entitled “A Folk Song Runs Through It”, and features works of Janáček, Kodály, and Bartók. I have reproduced below the liner notes relating to the Bartók sonata.
Bartók’s only sonata for piano is, like the two violin-piano sonatas of several years earlier, a radical departure from his overtly folk-based pieces of the previous decade. The opening movement is cast clearly in sonata-allegro form. It is dominated by machine-like energy, percussive, propulsive, filled with irregular phrases and brutal punctuations. The themes of the exposition can feel overpowering, but subtle distinctions are certainly present: the second theme group is more relaxed and more charming than the insistent opening theme; the closing theme is more festive. Wit animates the short development, and the truncated sotto voce recapitulation is wonderfully understated. A stretto variation of the opening theme leads to the headlong coda and its explosive closing glissando.
The second movement, in ternary form, opens with a frozen, grief-stricken theme: a single pitch, and a single chord – both repeated insistently in a ritual of alternation. A second theme, of plangent, widely-spaced chords, introduces a four-note diatonic scale. Part A develops both themes in a bare polyphonic texture. Part B is a single sustained event: a slow-growing, chromatic, and chordal crescendo over a pedal-tone, which lends great power to the return of the opening material, now altered and foreshortened. At the end, the lamenting single note of the opening leads to an abrupt and inconclusive closing chord, a poignant, enigmatic halt.
The finale opens with an unequivocal burst of folk dance, a theme which will return often, with marvelous decorations including the suggested twitterings of a bird in variations 5 and 7. Interruptions cleverly dramatize each new iteration of the theme. Unlike the first movement juggernaut, this movement is filled with capricious shifts of tempo. A final variant of the theme reminds this listener of “Good King Wenceslas” and builds to a brief coda: brisk and precipitous!
Notes by Andrew Rangell
This video features Zoltán Kocsis (pronounced KO-cheesh), yet another Hungarian, in a performance at La Roque d’Anthéron in 2002. If this is the first time you’ve heard this sonata, and if it should happen to seem unduly dissonant or disjointed – or any other ‘dis’ for that matter – I hope you will listen again. You can take my word for it: after just two or three hearings, it will begin to make the most compelling kind of sense.
My thanks to the multi-talented Maxine Frost for the caricature of Bartók. You can see more of Maxine’s artwork by clicking here.