The measurably superior First Concerto is an astounding amalgam of Liszt, Stravinsky, Richard Strauss and Slavic and most probably quasi-Slavic folk motifs. The wholly original second movement stands with Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” as a uniquely extended timbral mosaic. The mediation between percussion and string sonority in the piano writing reveals a profound understanding of the piano’s unique multiple role as a rhythmic, melodic and percussion instrument. Bartok’s piano is a virtuoso piano, inherited from Liszt but informed by modernity. Stravinsky’s pianos in “Les Noces” are blunt conveyors of essentially un-aesthetic folk myopia. “Les Noces” is a fundamentally inhumane work, but Bartok’s great concerto admirably bridges space between the rustic and the urban, between the primitive and the sophisticated; in fact, between pre-industrial and modern modes of being.
Oddly, the first movement is a painfully correct sonata form according to all the didactic, Germanic formulae; Bartok had a new idiom; but he did not have a new form. In fact, the appalling symmetry of Bartok’s formal devices indicates an obsession wholly foreign to the miraculous and almost improvisatory designs of the classical masters, albeit predicated at least on a partial misunderstanding of these masters whose works provide models perhaps, but never blueprints.
Virtuosity is ancillary in the First Concerto, but absolutely is the raison d’etrein the Second Concerto. The Second Concerto was written in 1930. It’s a piano concerto, but why isn’t it a ballet? Its obvious antecedent is Stravinsky’s Petroushka, composed in 1911. The Second Concerto is a strangely constricted — even constipated — work. The pianist is an acrobat but is not given anything like aesthetic responsibility; he needs to be a dexterity machine. As is distressingly common in Bartok, the formal designs of the movements are not sufficiently malleable… This work is essentially virtuosity plus neoclassicism, plus primitivism- as such, it is painfully representative of the so-called “dark valley” that informed European culture in the 1930s. Neoclassicism without charm, virtuosity without heart, violence without reason; this work is a finger in the wind, identifying the awful world to come in the next decade. Of course, Bartok was intensely antipathetic to fascistic causes. It would be absurd to suggest that the second concerto espouses any such fascistic predilections.
I see no reason to admire this work, except for its astounding expansion of the pianists physical resources. But one ought to be sympathetic to Bartok’s plight in this era; we think our world is crashing and burning, but his really was.
Two definitive recordings are available:
Maurizio Pollini, pianist. Claudio Abbado conducting the Chicago Symphony. The Anda recording is rightly renowned, but John finds this Pollini recording especially brilliant.
And here’s a sample from YouTube: The first movement of the First Concerto, performed by Vladimr Ashkenazy and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti.