Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle), strings, and solo piano
First LA Phil performance: November 23, 1966, Zubin Mehta conducting, with soloist Daniel Barenboim
By 1924, Béla Bartók was still better known as a touring virtuoso pianist than as a composer, although he already had a considerable body of work behind him. He was teaching at the Budapest Academy, continuing his researches in Hungarian folk music, and was newly married to his second wife, his young piano pupil Ditta Pásztory.
A year earlier, an encounter with the person and “strange” [Bartók’s word] solo piano works of Henry Cowell proved seminal to the Hungarian’s future music. The “strangeness” of Cowell had everything to do with the piling up of adjacent notes, i.e., “tone clusters.” Bartók asked Cowell whether he could “borrow” the technique, and the latter delightedly agreed. Bartók’s music of 1924 – 1926 makes striking use of the technique, integrating it magnificently into his own music, whereas with Cowell the clusters can seem ends in themselves. The apotheosis of the cluster, of dissonant counterpoint, edgy syncopation, of percussiveness is the First Piano Concerto, its characteristic hammering (“martellato”) method continued, only slightly diminished, in the Second Piano Concerto, which followed four years later.
The premiere of the First Piano Concerto took place at the 1927 Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Frankfurt. The orchestra was led by Wilhelm Furtwängler. But it was in fact, a less glamorous conductor, Jascha Horenstein, who prepared the orchestra and then passed the baton to Furtwängler for the actual performance. The critics were, to a man, outraged by the music. But for Bartók there was no turning back from the new style. The opening measures, soft, deep rumblings of timpani, piano, and low brass, point to the repeated (14 times here) hammering on a single note of the piano that will characterize the entire movement. The one-note assault continues with octave doublings, against a syncopated orchestral background.
The movement’s conclusion is a spinetingling thriller, as the piano explodes in cross-rhythms against the orchestra and exits with a solo flourish followed by a bashed-out orchestral chord.
The bleak coloring of the second movement derives in large part from the omission of the strings. The pianist is joined only by woodwinds, brass, and percussion, climbing out of the mists in a harsh march rhythm to a stunningly dissonant climax over the piano’s ostinato.
The finale, which follows without pause, begins as an onslaught (battle imagery is unavoidable) of drums with trombone glissandos: a war-dance dominated by piano and percussion with brass punctuation. Stravinsky, whose music Bartók had recently been studying, is recalled in the intensity of the “primitive” rhythmic argument. The middle section has piano, its rhythmic ostinato underscored by solo woodwinds, accompanying the orchestra. Enter a brief, angry fugato, then an innocent, dancelike passage leading to a precipitate end – rather as if the whole work had dashed itself against a brick wall.
— Herbert Glass