Stephen Barber
MusicWeb International
January 2017

I greatly enjoyed Tiberghien’s first disc of Bartók piano works (review) so was very pleased to receive this second one. He is both a scrupulous and an imaginative pianist. He faithfully follows Bartόk’s sometimes very detailed directions for attack, phrasing and dynamics, but allows himself a degree of freedom in rubato and in shaping the music so that they all come out as coherent piano works. This includes the items from Mikrokosmos which were avowedly written as a set of exercises. In particular he does not over-emphasize Bartόk’s percussive use of the piano, which has perhaps had too much attention. In his hands Bartόk’s debt to Debussy and his affinity with other pianist-composers such as Busoni and Szymanowski, come out more clearly.

This recital begins with the Romanian Folk Dances, one of the most attractive and popular of Bartόk’s piano works. This piano version was the original, though transcriptions for orchestra and for violin and piano are also often played. Indeed, his inspiration here was precisely that of folk fiddling. Tiberghien catches very nicely the improvisatory freedom of such a fiddler though you never feel that this is merely wilful. I noted that in the second piece, which Bartόk directs to be played twice, he adds an upper octave at the repetition. I can’t believe that Bartόk would have minded.

Next we have the Fourteen Bagatelles, the title deliberately taken from Beethoven who used it for three sets of short piano pieces. These are immediately more challenging musically, though not initially technically. The opening number has different key signatures in treble and bass, which must be one of the earliest examples of formal bitonality. Several of the others are similarly experimental, the second for example featuring major seconds. These, in Tiberghien’s hands, sound piquant rather than harsh, the seventh again being bitonal and the tenth using also chords in fourths, ostinatos and augmented triads. He also introduces a new pianistic device, the downward arpeggio. There are echoes of Debussy in the second and of Scriabin in the eighth. The tenth to the twelfth are longer and more elaborate than the others. By this stage they have moved some distance from the simpler writing of the opening pieces. Tiberghien makes all these sound easy and natural.

The Allegro barbaro is the work which fixed Bartόk’s personality in the minds of his early audiences. It is indeed mostly harsh, loud and fast. I was rather surprised to find Halsey Stevens, in his classic study of the composer, saying that it owes nothing to Liszt: it seems to me to come close in its idiom to that of Liszt’s two late Czárdás, the Czárdás macabre and the Czárdás obstiné. Tiberghien is as convincing in this work as he is in Bartόk’s gentler compositions, though I sense that this is not his favourite side of the composer. He takes every opportunity to vary the tone and the attack so that the work does not become overbearing; in any case, at one point the pianist is asked to play pppp.

The Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs are far more important than their title might suggest. A glance at the score shows how seriously the composer took this work: the notation is extremely elaborate, particularly in his directions for sustaining and pedalling and indicating which notes are to be sustained. The idiom here is refined and subtle, very different from that of the Allegro barbaro and closer to Szymanowski or Enescu. These pieces are not settings of folk-songs but, rather, Bartόk has absorbed the folk idiom into his own.

In his previous recital Tiberghien gave us the sixth and last book of Bartόk’s great set of piano exercises, Mikrokosmos. Here we have the fifth book. These are exercises in composition as much as in piano playing, with each one exploring a particular possibility. For example number 126 starts by changing time signature in every bar, 131 is an exercise in fourths and 134 is a chromatic exercise in double notes which seems to look forward to the studies of Ligeti. 127 is a setting of a Hungarian folk-song and I assume that Tiberghien double-tracked the melody and the piano line. In these short pieces I noted an aspect of his playing which I had not had occasion to observe particularly before: his playfulness. Aspiring pianists who listen to this version to help with their own playing should note his sense of fun.

The obvious comparison with this developing series is with the late Zoltán Kocsis, who recorded the whole of Bartόk’s solo piano music around twenty years ago on a series of eight CDs, available individually from Presto or as a set (Philips 47567 or Decca 4782364). He went on to record the concertos and other piano concertante works and then picked up the baton and recorded all Bartók’s orchestral output. He was the premier performer of Bartόk of his time. I think it is sufficient to say that between Kocsis and Tiberghien honours are evenly divided.

It remains only to say that the recording is clear and well balanced and the sleeve notes helpful. I look forward to Tiberghien’s next Bartόk recital: he has yet to give us the Sonata.