A Final Masterpiece from the Constant Searcher

Adagio religioso. © Charles Thibo

Ah, yes… Bartok. That Hungarian enigma. I hesitated for months before presenting one of his pieces as I haven’t studied his works long enough. It took the French pianist Hélène Grimaud to spur me. She was in town yesterday and what should I say? She was fabulous and Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz. 119 was even more fabulous. An unusual piece  executed with a lot of passion by Grimaud and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra led by Yannick Nézet-Seguin.

Bartok never finished the piece. After the out-break of World War II, he fled from Europe to the USA, but never really felt at home in his exile. In 1945, despite his failing health, he undertook to compose a third piano concerto – lighter, airier than the previous two. It was to be dedicated to his wife, who frequently accompanied Bartok on the piano in concerts. She was supposed to play this piano concert too, however Bartok died on September 26, 1945 with the score unfinished. The final 17 bars were written by Bartok’s friend Tibor Sely, who was drawing from the composer’s notes. The piece saw its premiere in Philadelphia on February 8, 1946.

Complex melodic pattern

The first movement gives the pianist ample space to unfold and Grimaud filled it with a delicateness and dexterity, at times dreamy and lyrical, at times insistent while the orchestra formed a well-tempered and full-bodied background. Bartok composed it with a particular Hungarian folk tune in mind, it would define the concert as the culminating point of Bartok’s exploration of tonality and complex melodic pattern. Hearing that well-balanced and harmonious dialogue between soloist and orchestra was quite an experience.

Adagio religioso – that’s what Bartok, an unconditional agnostic, wrote into the score of the second movement, and yes, it seems to be a distant echo of a Bach chorale. The strings introduce the theme, the piano takes it up, gently, solemn; some recognize a reference to Beethoven’s String Quartet  No. 15 in A minor. And finally there is a curious and surprising bird-like dialogue between the piano and selected winds. Enigmatically beautiful!

In the third movement Bartok seems to drop any restraint. A forceful entry of the piano, rounded of by timpani, pause, then the piano is back with the main theme inspired again from a Hungarian folk tune, the orchestra takes it up and again the timpani add their power to make the message get through. Grimaud spared no physical effort to give us a maximum of “Bartok chords”. I suppose it says fortissimo somewhere in the score!

Bewildering and sublime

Bartok was born in 1881 in a region of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that is now part of Romania. He declined a scholarship in Vienna and chose to study in Budapest. In 1904 he discovered the existence of truly Hungarian folksongs that would lead him and his friend Zoltan Kodaly (see this weekend’s post) to develop a new Hungarian style of classical music. The two promoted these new ideas from 1907 onward when the took up teaching posts at Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. From the 1920s Bartok toured Europe and the USA as a pianist. At the same time he composed mainly chamber music: sonatas, quartets, sonatas.

Did I qualify Bartok as enigmatic? I did so because his quartets and his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (Sz. 116) still leave me bewildered. Romantic? Post-romantic? Second Viennese School in the footsteps of Schönberg? A category of its own? I don’t know. Bartok’s third piano concerto reminded me more than once of Shostakovitch and the influence of American jazz music on classical composers. Bartok seems to have been on a permanent search for new sounds, borrowing here and there. Most of it sounds sublime as does his Piano Concerto No. 3, recorded for example by Grimaud and the London Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, but some pieces still defy my sense of aesthetics!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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