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Bartok and the Piano: a Performer's View.

By Barbara Nissman. Lanhan, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002. [xiii, 319. p. ISBN 081084301-3. $49.95.] Music examples, bibliography, indexes, compact disc.

Since the Hungarian composer B,la Bart>k (1881--1945) was a virtuoso pianist, it is hardly surprising that his works for piano reflect the entire evolution of his musical style. These works range from his adolescent, unpublished four-movement sonata (1898) that has "the heaviness of Brahms, the octaves of Liszt, and the pomposity of Wagner" (p. 3); to increasingly folk-inspired, atmospheric pieces such as the Improvisations (1920); to mid-career works such as his Piano Sonata and Out of Doors (1926), featuring the percussive, martellato style for which he has been unfairly stereotyped; to the crystalline Third Piano Concerto, written in the last months of Iris life (1945), a work that "achieves a true classical simplicity" (p. 250). While Bart>k's collection of teaching pieces, Mikrokosmos, is often cited as a "microcosm" of all the compositional techniques he used in his piano works, it is fair to say that Bart>k's entire piano output is likewise a microcosm of his entire oeuvre. To delve deeply into the piano works is to gain insight into Bart>k's extraordinary string quartets and orchestral works as well.

Pianist Barbara Nissman is the ideal performer/scholar to provide such an indepth study of Bart>k's complete output for piano. Nissman established herself in the 1980s as a champion of the piano music of Alberto Ginastera, recording his complete piano music in 1989 (Globe GLO 5006 [1988], 3 CDs) that won nominations for Record of the Year from both Gramophone and American Record Guide. Her subsequient recordings of the nine piano sonatas of Sergey Prokofiev have received the highest praise, and are now available on Pierian Records (Pierian 7 [2002], 3 CDs).

Nissman recently decided to focus her considerable talent's on preparing to record piano music of Bart>k. While immersing herself in Bart>k's music, she noted the lack of a comprehensive guide for the performing pianist. In undertaking to fill this void, Nissman has produced an admirable volume that examines not only Bart>k's entire output for solo piano but also the three concerti and his chamber music that includes piano. (The enclosed compact disc with thirty-two tracks, beautifully played by Nissman, is a wonderful bonus--a preview of coming attractions.) I found that it is possible to read through this volume for a complete overview of Bart>k's works for piano, or to dip into it as a reference for preparing specific pieces for performance.

One of the greatest strengths of Nissman's book is that it tracks the many influences of other composers on Bart>k's early development. Some influences may be inferred by the music itself, while others are clearly documented in Bartok's own letters or other sources. Works such as the Four Piano Pieces (1903) and the Dirges (190910) would not be what they are without Bart>k's thorough familiarity with Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Franz Liszt, and Claude Debussy. Nissman's quotations of Bart>k's writings are perfectly chosen, for example, these from his Autobiography:
 The first Budapest performance of Thus
 Spake Zarathustra, in 1902, came like a
 flash of lightning which whirled me out
 of my stagnation. (p. 10)

 ... the magic of Richard Strauss had
 evaporated, A really thorough study of
 Liszt's oeuvre, especially some of his less
 well-known works.., after being stripped
 of their mere external brilliance, which I
 did not like, revealed to me the true
 essence of composing. For the future development
 of music, his oeuvre seemed
 to me of far greater importance than that
 of Strauss or even Wagner. (p. 12)

It is refreshing to read such quotations from Bart>k about Franz Liszt, a composer too frequently dismissed as a mere showman. Liszt's influence on Bart>k was enormous, and not simply because the piano music gave Bart>k a virtuoso technique and equipped him to write heroic octaves, leaps, and runs in his pre-1906 works, but also because Bartok admired so many formal features of Liszt's best works. As Nissman states, "The crafting of motivic material, thematic transformation, use of motto themes, fugal writing, economy and unity of design--all are legacies of Liszt that Bart>k himself employed in his Sonata of 1926" (p. 112).

Concerning Bartok's interest in baroque style, Nissman points out that his attention to canonic and fugal techniques coincided with his emersion in the works of Girolamo Frescobaldi, Domenico Zipoli, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Francois Couperin, composers whose music he was editing for a Budapest publisher and including on his own piano recitals during his busy concert tours of 1926-31. "In recent, years, I have considerably occupied myself with music before Bach and I believe that traces of this are to be noticed in the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Nine Little Pieces" (p. 215).

As informative as Nissman's book is, I was often distracted by the fact that her presentation of Bart>k's music is not chronological. Although she explains her decision in the introduction by stating that "the exploration of roots and influences necessary, to an understanding of Bart>k's pianism did not always follow a chronological order" (p. xi), I remain unconvinced of the wisdom of disregarding chronology in the presentation. It seemed confusing to read about the Sonata (1926) in chapter 5, then to read in chapter 7 about the Suite, op. 14, written ten years earlier, and then, in chapter 8, about the four Dirges, composed six years before that. I often found myself mentally attempting to place these works chronologically in order to better track Bartok's journey of exploration, development, and maturity.

It is well-known that Bartok and his compatriot Zoltan Kod ly were devoted to collecting folk songs, and Nissman's chapter "Folk Music: The Perfect Union" clarifies how and why this devotion was such an essential part of Bart>k's compositional philosophy. Whereas the Germans had Bach and Beethoven to look to for an artistic summation of their own national music, Hungarians did not have such predecessors. "Living in a small country such as Hungary heightened Bart>k's personal awareness of the need for musical roots and an identifiable national tradition, as distinct from the venerable German musical legacy" (p. 84). Bart>k's use of folk melodies in his concert music underwent various transformations. At times, he quoted the melodies literally, adding his own harmonization, as in Three Hungarian Folk Songs from the Cs-k District of 1907. A more advanced procedure involved settings such as Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (1914-18), "where the melody is simply the catalyst for a more complex work" (p. 89). Finally, there are other works in which Bart>k allowed himself free reign, of ten obscuring (but never leaving!) the tonal center, such as in his set of eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs (1920). Bart>k admired peasant melodies as miniature masterpieces of perfect art from which he could learn and model his own art. In his 1928 essay about Hungarian folk songs, Bart>k wrote, "... from this music, we have learned how best to employ terseness of expression, the utmost excision of all that is nonessential--and it was this very thing, after the excessive grandiloquence of the Romantic Period, which we thirsted to learn" (p. 87). To further explain Bart>k's own unique piano textures, Nissman also quotes one of his last American radio interviews. Speaking of his Suite, op. 14, he said, "I had in mind the refining of piano technique, the changing of piano technique into a more transparent style, more of bone and muscle, as opposed to the heavy chordal style of the late romantic period ... " (p. 178).

In an effort to emphasize Bartok's new piano style that rejected the nineteenth-century excesses of piano writing, Nissman frequently refers to him as a "minimalist." For example, about his second Elegy, she writes: "Bartok proves himself to be a superb minimalist, but this is minimalism within a dramatic three-part structure that exploits repetition and variation for maximum effect" (p. 28). There is no doubt that Bartok was interested in leanness, economy of notes, concise writing, and yes, repetition, but this should not be confused with what is now known as minimalism. Minimalists such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich created their own music by swinging the "unity/variety" pendulum completely toward the "unity" side, with unprecedented repetition of few notes and emulation of nonwestern traditions learned in Africa and India. According to Nicolas Slonimsky, "Etiologically, this type of composition is hypnopompic, for it creates a subliminal state between a strong dream and a sudden reality" (Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. [New York: Schirmer Books, 1992], 1491). Though Bart>k certainly would have become fascinated with those traditions, bad he the opportunity to study them, he was not a minimalist. His own music remains decidedly western, balancing repetition with contrast and variation.

Nissman includes sections specifically for performers throughout the book; these "Suggestions for Performance" give advice about playing and practicing, opinions about various editorial markings, and commentary about metronome marks. Nissman is bursting with suggestions; in fact, they often spill out into earlier pages otherwise devoted to history of analysis. To get the full benefit of her detailed advice, the reader must balance the book, together with a copy of the score, on the music rack of the piano, and try all the different possibilities. As this can become rather tricky, I would welcome the production of a videocassette or digital videodisc with Nissman demonstrating how to practice (and how not to practice) these many passages.

The reader win be especially grateful for Nissman's final chapter, "Clarity and Rubato: Bart>k as Pianist," in which she compiles a very thorough discography of Bart>k the pianist. (It was good to be reminded that during Bart>k's thirty years as a professor at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest he taught piano, not composition.) Some of these recordings are rare and nearly impossible to find, so it is wonderful news that more and more of them are being reissued. Hearing Bart>k play his music is invaluable for present and future performers. It is worth quoting Nissman's entire paragraph about the value of hearing Bart>k's own performances:
 Unfortunately, too often the predominant
 view of Bartok's piano writing has
 focused only on the distorted allegro barbaroso
 image and has categorized Bartok
 as a percussive, hard, brittle, unbending,
 and inflexible pianist, totally lacking in
 color, charm, and spontaneity. His playfulness,
 humor and wit, and vitality of
 spirit usually get overlooked. However,
 these ingredients are in abundance in his
 recordings, always accompanied by a direct,
 unmannered, no-nonsense approach
 to the music. The serious performer of
 Bartok's piano works has the obligation
 to explore all of the music's coloristic
 riches and subtleties and not perpetuate
 the distorted image of Bartok's piano
 writing. (p. 288)

It is heartwarming to see an accomplished, virtuoso performer such as Barbara Nissman equally at home in the scholarly activity of writing a book. There is an engaging quality to her writing, at times refreshingly colloquial, that will certainly appeal to the proper audience--that is, to pianists in practice rooms around the world.

DAVID WITTEN Montclair State University
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Author:Witten, David
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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