December 1898: A young man of 17 travels to Vienna for an audition. He has worked the piano for years and written a few compositions: a string quartet, a piano quartet, a few melodies for piano and voice. He is nervous, certainly. Vienna – the musical center of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. But all goes well, he is accepted at the conservatory and he even is awarded a scholarship by the emperor. But the young man decides otherwise. Bela Bartok prefers to study close to home, in Budapest, where in 1875 the Royal Academy of National Hungarian Music has been inaugurated, in the wake of a national awakening in the multi-ethnic empire. The name of its director is Franz Liszt.
A year later Bartok is admitted to the piano class of Istvan Thoman, one of Liszt’s former students without the compulsory entry exam. Thoman even recommends him to his colleague Janos Koessler, a professor for composition, who accepts to study Bartok’s early compositions. One piece captures his attention: Bartok’s Piano Quartet in C minor (BB 13, Op. 20). Koessler is enthusiastic, for good reasons. But for decades this magnificent piece lay dormant in the archives.
The German Notos Quartett, (Sindri Lederer/violin, Andrea Burger/viol, Philip Graham/cello, Antonia Köster/piano) hunted down the score and in 2017 proudly presented the piece’s very first recording. It had been performed only once, by Bartok himself, and a second time in 1964 during a concert in Hungary. Hopefully the recording will give the quartet a little publicity. This early work, combing the spirit of Romanticism with Hungarian folk elements, anticipates Bartok’s later, more complex and more ambitious multi-layered compositions and is an early indication of Bartok’s outstanding talent.
The corollary to Bartok’s talent was his equally outstanding ambition and pursuit of excellence. The French musicologist Claire Delamarche, author of an excellent biography, writes: “In terms of music, the young man showed little tolerance. This characteristic trait would not weaken. The older Bartok grew, the less he supported approximation or mediocrity in his works.” This would lead him to exert a tyrannical regime over his editors, translators, agents and collaborators.
A year ago I did a beautiful walk with my family after a little snow had fallen in Luxembourg and transformed the landscape in an eery black-and-white-and-grey atmosphere. The incremental contrasts fascinated me and it plunged me in a melancholic mood. Another year had passed. I had to think about this moment when I first listened to this piece a month ago. Enjoy.
© Charles Thibo