Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Did Bartók write the last great piano concerto?

Béla Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3 in E major (Sz. 119, BB 127) was composed in 1945 by the Hungarian composer during the final months of his life. As is typical with compositions calling themselves concertos, this piece has three movements; 1. Allegretto, 2. Adagio religioso and 3. Allegro vivace. (For the present, a movement is synonymous with a section. To most people, each movement will seem as a separate song, so this piece will have three songs to it.) It was not commissioned (which would have meant he got paid for it), as was much of Bartók's work, but composed as a surprise birthday gift for his second wife, Ditto Pásztory, who was a skilled pianist, as was Bartók. One must be serious to play this piece, though it is usually considered technically the easiest of Bartók's three piano concertos.

Bartók died on September 26, 1945, after a long fight with leukaemia, with this concerto unfinished. We know that it was complete but for the last 17 measures, which fell to Tibor Serly, a friend and pupil of Bartók to finish. He did a superb job too. We also know that before his end, Bartók had managed to be able to travel to North Carolina and to the Adirondacks in upstate New York. The entire work was written in America and as can easily be heard, strongly resonates with much that is typical of this country. The second movement, possibly the emotional focus of the entire work, was probably written in North Carolina and maybe even the middle section, the climax, may have been written at the same time as first atomic bombs in combat brought about the end of World War II. For Bartók, this part was most likely a personal statement of existential agony, but Bartók was always keenly aware of his duties as a serious composer, to attempt the almost impossible task of writing music for the ages. From our vantage point we can look back on this period right after the war, which gave us some notable pieces by composers who had sought refuge in America, as about the last time that music of the spirit of doing what those of the calibre of a Bartók would have been produced.

The question at the top is hardly rhetorical. I ask all my friends and acquaintances to suggest any composition of standing that merit comparison with this concerto written 66 years ago this year. If this was indeed the last great piano concerto to be written, what's that say of the future of piano concertos, of this business of daring to write music for the ages? I maintain that it is a sign of a kind of degeneracy borne of modern times, of factors and conditions that shaped the world long before any of us were born. Will these conditions continue? Could the idea of doing something in music that will be as close to immortal as it is possible to achieve will take root and flourish elsewhere on the planet once again? Could we hear the next great piano concerto come perhaps out of Asia? We'll just have to wait and see. 

But some things are certain; the audacity required to create it will have to be matched by enough people to respond to it, that it may become a thing of universal memory. As it is, I know of perhaps a dozen people who have ever heard of Bartók (and of those few pronounce his name correctly!), fewer still know this piece, fewer still who have ever heard it. For me things like this might seem tragic but for my realization that after all people like Bartók were and are rare. Their music is rare too, and those who like it or play it may be rarer still. We have always been in a minority as those who admire the greatest poets are.  Yet I honestly can't think of too many pieces I would be sadder not to have known as this one (how can one even say such a thing?). I find in it an ode to the longing in the human spirit, with a keen sense that the longings for this particular composer happened in and around New York City, a place I consider to know well, of other places that seem familiar to me through my travels and life down south and here in upstate New York.

My personal acquaintance with this great piece goes back into my teens when I first heard Peter Serkin play it. He is still playing it as of March 5, 2011!  Those in the vicinity of Tanglewood take notice; it's time to get behind the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra, in Williamstown, Massachusetts!

So now it is with great pleasure that I draw your attention to an accomplished performance of this wonderful concerto by Andrãs Schiff, the ... Hungarian born pianist. Is there anything he can't do? The Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (UK of course) is directed by one of my favourite conductors, eh, SIR. Simon Rattle. Imagine being a conductor with the name Rattle, isn't it funny? Well, his interpretations are not funny unless that's exactly what the music intended, you know, intentional as in “on purpose.” That's what makes all of this stuff any good. It's all strictly intentional, every little nuance of it.

You might notice that these videos take a while to download and stopping and having to wait in the middle of a piece is really a drag. So to avoid that, you may want to select each of the videos in a separate window and wait until they're all downloaded to play them. Enjoy.

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