Cédric Tiberghien’s survey of Bartók’s complete piano music continues on Hyperion. Although I didn’t catch the first volume, which included Book 6 of the Mikrokosmos and the Suite Op14, the reviews were excellent (review). I can continue the plaudits as regards this second disc.
It's difficult to highlight one piece in particular but we can start with the extraordinary Fourteen Bagatelles. These are not as well known as they should be. In many ways Bartók was a miniaturist and this work has fourteen highly polished gems and varying lengths. Tiberghien proves himself a colourful pianist with especial subtlety reserved for number 12—a Lento—with its gradual accelerando of repeated notes and with reminiscences of a cimbalom. Similarly I would also highlight number five, a excitable Vivo.
The Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs are played equally colourfully. These are utterly fascinating pieces, also not often heard. They seem to be the nearest Bartók got to Stravinsky and are quite experimental in harmony and effect. Interestingly, as David Cooper’s eloquent notes make clear, this was the composer’s only work in 1920. The folk rhythms are still there but spiced up with even more originality. It must be remembered that Bartók had collected and annotated hundreds of folk-songs on his recording machine in the years around 1906-12. These were from Bulgaria, Hungary and Rumania. It seems that he only used four of them in this work but the overall impression is one of ethnic understanding transmogrified.
The Romanian Folk Dances are six in number and are known in various versions. They are all melodies he collected. He adds harmonies and colours in a simpler way as if he is finding his feet in this form. They pre-date the Improvisations by a good five years.
It’s true to say that Tiberghien’s version of the famous Allegro barbaro is rather lacking in barbaro, but for me that’s no bad thing. I have heard this piece assaulted and used by pianists to show off their power. He also has a sense of freedom of pulse, which seems to be highly authentic and adds character.
There are six Mikrokosmos volumes and amongst the several pianists who have recorded them Jenö Jandó on Naxos manages to squeeze all of them onto a double CD (8.557821-22) playing with style and panache. They constitute teaching aids and with some pupils they can work well. That said many, in the UK anyway, find the lack of conventional melody, the regular time signature changes and the dissonances a bit of a ‘put-off’. Perhaps that’s why the exam boards have eschewed the books in the last decade or so. For the serious student there is no doubt that these pieces enable them to begin to grasp the essence of Bartók's language. In addition they cover the complete emotional range. In Volume 5 the pieces vary from wistful ‘whole-tone scales’ (track 43) to the spitefully aggressive Perpetuum mobile (track 44). Especially effective is the one called Boating (track 33). Each piece demands a different technical approach and many are bi-tonal. The traditional music of Hungary, Bulgaria (Bagpipe Music) and Romania (Jack-in-the-box) is always near the surface.
There are other pianists who have recorded some of this music with much success. However I see no reason to push any reader away from this new disc. It's beautifully recorded and as I have indicated, beautifully played.