Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes (1st = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 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, with soloist György Sándor
By age 50 and his Second Piano Concerto, Bartók had won considerable respect from the academic community for his studies and collections of Hungarian and other East European folk music. He was in demand as a pianist, performing his own music and classics of the 18th and 19th centuries. His orchestral works, largely built on Hungarian folk idiom (as was most of his music) and characterized by extraordinary rhythmic complexity, were being heard, but remained a tough sell. Case in point, this Second Piano Concerto, which took 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. It would be the last appearance in Germany for the outspokenly anti-Fascist Bartók. During the following months, however, an array of renowned conductors took on its daunting pages: Adrian Boult, Hermann Scherchen, Václav Talich, Ernest Ansermet, all with Bartók as soloist, while Otto Klemperer introduced it to Budapest, with pianist Louis Kentner.
“I consider my First Piano Concerto a good composition, although its structure is a bit – indeed one might say very -- difficult for both audience and orchestra. That is why a few years later… I composed 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 pugilistic work is unlikely to find it to be “lighter” than virtually anything in Bartok’s output except his First Concerto. In this context, the Hungarian critic György Kroó wryly reminds us that Wagner considered 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, two recurring – in this movement and in the finale – motifs are hurled out: the first by solo trumpet over a loud piano trill and the second, its response, a rush of percussive piano chords. A series of contrapuntal developments follows, as does a grandiose cadenza and a fiercely dramatic ending. The slow movement is a three-part chorale with muted strings that has much in common with the “night music” of the composer’s Fourth Quartet (1928), but with a jarring toccata-scherzo at midpoint. The alternatingly dueling and complementary piano and timpani duo – the timpani here muffled, blurred – resume their partnership from the first movement, now with optimum subtlety. The wildly syncopated rondo-finale in a sense recapitulates the opening movement. At the end, Bartók shows us the full range of his skill as an orchestrator with a grand display of instrumental color. The refrain – the word hardly seems appropriate in the brutal context of this music – is a battering syncopated figure in the piano over a twonote timpani ostinato.
-- Herbert Glass