Timing: c. 25:00
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, 4 cymbals, 2 snare drums, tam-tam, triangle), strings, and solo piano.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 23, 1966, with soloist Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta conducting.
Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók. Many have long advocated the addition of the Hungarian composer to the triumvirate of great Germans (specious though the grouping may be); others resist it or actively resent it. Béla Bartók (1881-1945) as the fourth B only joined the company of the exalted three, if he did at all, posthumously. Actually it was in 1944, by way of his Concerto for Orchestra, that the door of recognition was nudged open somewhat for the intensely personal, ruthlessly honest composer. After his death the following year, that composition helped to encourage, first, curiosity, then acceptance of what is admittedly a knotty, acerbic, but also stimulating and compelling musical language spoken with an utterly distinctive voice.
The decisive factor in forming that voice was the folk music of his native Hungary and its environs. During the years he roamed the hinterlands ferreting out literally thousands of examples of authentic folk pieces (as opposed to the popular gypsy music wrongly construed by his countryman Franz Liszt to be the genuine folk article), Bartók evolved what can be considered an original folklore, that is, a vital new music created in the image and likeness of its models. The music of the peasants became the oil of his creative motor. Virtually nothing he wrote after his discoveries went untouched by the folk flavors, which, along with the idioms of Debussy and Stravinsky that he had absorbed, shaped his individuality, an individuality as unmistakable to the ear as a well-developed photograph is to the eye. The singularity of Bartók’s music arises from many elements, among them: rhythms that pound insistently or that are arrestingly irregular; modes and exotic scale combinations; severely simple melodies whose rise and fall stem from speech patterns; driving, often barbaric energy and, in contrast, wondrously provocative calms; an amalgam of simple triadic harmonies and clenched dissonances.
Bartók was not only a prolific composer of works in many forms, but also an active concert pianist of virtuoso means, recognized for the brilliance of his playing. (It must be said that in terms of keyboard mastery he fits perfectly into the company of the three Bs, who were virtuosos all.) It’s not surprising then that there are a large number of entries in the piano solo section of Bartók’s catalog beginning in the early 1900s and continuing almost throughout his life. Many of the pieces are instructional in nature, but all have the composer’s unique stylistic signature. In 1911, with the Allegro barbaro, he began in earnest to use the piano as a percussive instrument, an approach that reached its zenith in the First Piano Concerto.
The Concerto was written in 1926, premiered by the composer in Frankfurt the following year, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting, and in the U.S. in 1928 with Fritz Reiner and the Cincinnati Symphony, where it was greeted then with equal parts of incredulity and disdain. At this point in time, the Concerto is nowhere nearly as daunting a challenge for the soloist as it was once considered, although only a powerhouse pianist need apply. In it the composer utters things of violence and beauty, strength and reticence, barbaric urgency and haunting eloquence, and always with remarkable formal discipline and of course disarmingly virtuosic pianism.
What a heady mix it is, stylistically as well as pianistically. The watchword of the solo part is percussiveness of the first order. For just one example, there are the repeated octaves in both hands that stab out the main idea after an insinuating introduction that opens with portentous timpani and piano hammer blows and has horns and bassoons issuing a Rite of Spring-like idea. At the other end of the single or double octave spectrum are the mixed clusters of tones, like so many exposed nerve ends jangling with tension. Frequently in the course of the work, as if to atone for his dissonant and percussive sins, Bartók charms with passages in gentle thirds and other traditional, diatonic combinations. But, whether the approach of the moment is brittle, brutal or benign, the overriding element of the first – and the last – movement is that of intense, explosive energy.
The basic propellant for all of the taut and inexhaustible vitality is a driving rhythm in both piano and orchestra that is at times poundingly regular, at other times spikily syncopated, some of it set out in even metrics, some in bars whose time signatures change frequently. Structurally, in the outer movements, Bartók places his new wine into something strongly resembling the old formally recognizable sonata-allegro bottle. It pours well.
In the Andante second movement, the strings withdraw completely, and even the winds are left in the wings for the first 68 measures while the stage is left to piano and a battery of percussion: timpani, small drum, bass drum, cymbals, and tam-tam. After this group executes a quiet, foreboding introduction, the main idea enters as if it were an episode by Bach translated by Bartók, even to its lengthy unfolding in polyphonic texture. The middle section builds from soft dissonant beginnings to a climax in which the piano grabs at great clusters of notes in a long-continuing ostinato, while the winds move along in tonally divergent contrapuntal lines. After a coda containing materials from the first and second sections, an Allegro passage, initiating the mood and the ideas of the final movement, leads directly into that movement. Here we have Bartók exercising his most furious energies in dynamism that sweeps all before it, building climax upon climax until the music finally careens to an ending that explodes with all of its animal strength still at fever pitch.
What a dizzying ride Bartók gives us in his First Piano Concerto. In the Second Concerto we see a lessening of brutal power; in the Third Concerto, his last completed work (save for 17 measures), the steeliness has been honed down to a still brilliant but considerably more pliant firmness. But Bartók is never less than Bartók, a unique voice that speaks directly to the senses, the intellect, and frequently, to the heart.
-- Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.