Length: c. 28 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes (1st = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle), strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 20, 1962, Zubin Mehta conducting, and soloist György Sándor
By the 1850s and in his mid-40s, Liszt was secure in his position as a living god in Europe and in America. At approximately the same age Béla Bartók had barely progressed beyond winning the grudging respect of the Hungarian academic community for his published studies and collections of Hungarian and other East European folk music. He was, however, in some demand as a pianist, performing in Europe and the Americas – although not always in “A list” venues – his own music and that of Bach, Mozart, Scarlatti, Chopin, and Beethoven.
While Liszt tended to equate Gypsy music with Hungarian music, and more often than not disclaimed any kind of folk inspiration, Bartók’s orchestral works are largely built on Hungarian and other east-European folk idioms and characterized by extraordinary rhythmic complexity; they were performed, but remained a tough sell until the last months of his life: he made his popular breakthrough with the Concerto for Orchestra, less than a year before his death in 1944.
Case in point: this Second Piano Concerto, which took nearly a year and a half after its completion to find a taker, Hans Rosbaud, who led the premiere in Frankfurt, with the composer as soloist, in January of 1933; this was the last appearance in Germany for the outspokenly anti-Fascist Bartók. During the following months, however, an array of renowned conductors took a crack at its daunting pages: Adrian Boult, Hermann Scherchen, Václav Talich, Ernest Ansermet, all with Bartók as soloist, while Otto Klemperer introduced it to Budapest, with Louis Kentner at the piano.
“I composed my First Piano Concerto in 1926,” Bartók wrote. “I consider it a good composition, although its structure is a bit – even very – difficult for both audience and orchestra. That is why a few years later… I wished to compose the Piano Concerto No. 2 with fewer difficulties for the orchestra and more pleasing in its thematic material… Most of the themes in the piece are more popular and lighter in character.”
The listener encountering this blasting, battering, pugilistic work is unlikely to find it to be “lighter” than virtually anything except Bartók’s First Piano Concerto. In this context, the late Hungarian musicologist György Kroó wryly reminds us that Wagner considered his Tristan und Isolde a lightweight counterpart to his Ring – “easily performable, with box office appeal.”
On the first page of the harshly brilliant opening movement of the Second Concerto, two recurring – here and in the finale – motifs are quickly hurled out: the first by solo trumpet over a loud piano trill and the second, its response, a rush of percussive chords in the piano. A series of contrapuntal developments follows, as does a grandiose cadenza and a fiercely dramatic ending.
The slow movement is a vast, three-part chorale – slow-fast-slow – with muted strings that has much in common with the “night music” of the composer’s Fourth String Quartet (1928), but with a jarring toccata-scherzo at midpoint. The alternately dueling and complementary piano and timpani duo – the timpani here muffled, blurred – resume their partnership from the first movement, but now with optimum subtlety.
Only in the final movement is the full orchestra employed, and to what spectacular effect! The form of the Concerto is an arch; thus the wildly syncopated rondo-finale in a sense recapitulates the opening movement. At the end, Bartók shows us his full range of skill as an orchestrator with a grand display of instrumental color. The refrain – the word hardly seems appropriate in the brilliant, brutal context of this music – is a battering syncopated figure in the piano over a two-note timpani ostinato.
After serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Opera, followed by a long-term relationship with the Los Angeles Times as a critic/columnist, the author has for the past decade-plus been English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.