Bartók: Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra

Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra

Béla Viktor János Bartók
BORN: March 25, 1881. Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (which later became Sannicolau Mare, Rumania)
DIED: September 26, 1945. New York City

COMPOSED:  October 1930 to October 9, 1931

WORLD PREMIERE: January 23, 1933, in Frankfurt. The composer was at the piano with Hans Rosbaud conducting 

US PREMIERE: March 2, 1939. Storm Bull was soloist, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock conducting

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— March 1946. Maxim Schapiro was soloist and Pierre Monteux conducted. MOST RECENT—June 2011. Yuja Wang was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, military drum, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, and strings  

DURATION: About 28 mins

THE BACKSTORY As a fledgling composer, Bartók was in the thrall of the Viennese classics and of Franz Liszt. In 1902, the first performance in Budapest of Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra blasted the walls out of the confined musical world he had inhabited, and the next year he responded by writing an aggressive and huge symphonic poem, Kossuth, in emulation of Strauss. Strauss had liberated Bartók, but it was not long before he needed liberating from Strauss. He found an exit first of all in folk songs, which he began to collect and transcribe in 1904, an activity that became a major and permanent commitment. With his friend the composer Zoltán Kodály, he combed the countryside collecting music in remote villages. It was this music, and later the added influence of Debussy, that gave Bartók his first glimpse into a new world of texture and color.

Bartók could actually trace his piano lineage back to another illustrious Hungarian, having studied with one of Liszt’s favorite former pupils. The Liszt-inspired Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 1 (1904), served as Bartók’s major concertante work in the decades before he wrote his first official piano concerto in 1926. Both the First and the Second Piano Concertos were written within a few years of each other to broaden the composer’s performing repertory. He had returned to the concert stage in the early 1920s to focus on his career as a pianist following a series of setbacks and conflicts with Hungary’s right-wing authoritarian government, which came to power following World War I. For a few years he produced very little new material; his composing career temporarily stalled as he toured widely. Bartók himself wrote that the piano’s “inherent nature becomes really expressive only by means of the present tendency to use the piano as a percussion instrument.” It bears remarking, however, that this percussive ideal should not be reduced—despite the frequently encountered temptation to do just that—to a “barbaric” style based on aggressive banging. There is ample room in Bartók’s understanding of this pianistic dimension for subtle gradations of emphasis and color. (He unfortunately never made a complete recording of the first two piano concertos, although he gave frequent performances. However, Bartók’s interpretations of his solo pieces have been preserved on disc and offer a fascinating self-portrait of Bartók in addition to the music itself.)

Bartók’s reference to what is “really expressive” is closely allied to his preoccupation with folk music. “The right type of peasant music,” he wrote in the year in which he completed the Second Piano Concerto, “is most varied and perfect in its forms. Its expressive power is amazing, and at the same time devoid of all sentimentality and superfluous ornaments. It is simple, sometimes primitive, but never silly. It is the ideal starting point for a musical renaissance.”

The prototypes Bartók found in folk music pointed the way toward a sinewy expressiveness, and the piano was the vehicle that enabled him to release a renewed outburst of creativity. Beginning with the Piano Sonata in 1926 (followed later that year by the piano suite Out of Doors and the First Piano Concerto), Bartók added to the portfolio of his own compositions for the instrument. These works supplied fresh material for his performance tours, to be sure, but most commentators agree that they also mark a pivotal turning-point in Bartók’s compositional style. With these works Bartók would not only consolidate features of his musical personality but anticipate developments to come in the later masterpieces.

“In my youth my ideal of beauty was not so much the art of Bach or of Mozart as that of Beethoven,” wrote the composer, clarifying his own sense of a watershed that commenced in what is often referred to as the “piano year” of 1926. The resulting stylistic shift involved a Bartókian slant on the neoclassicism that had enthralled a number of his peers during that decade. Musicologist János Kárpáti describes how Bartók made use of Baroque models “and adopted their concision of theme, contrapuntal technique, and motoric, toccata-like movement into his own style.” Stravinsky’s compositions provided another model for this reappropriation of the past—much as his revolutionary ballets were also much admired by Bartók for their imaginative integration of folk-inspired elements.

The Second Piano Concerto in particular is recognized as a milestone in this stylistic evolution. In many ways it represents a rethinking of and response to ideas initially explored in the First Piano Concerto. Bartók’s international reputation had been escalating dramatically thanks to his extensive touring, and he felt the need in any case for a newer work with which to concertize. Another stimulus was his dissatisfaction with the reception of the First Concerto. Fond as he was of a work he characterized as “successful,” Bartók later acknowledged that “its writing is a bit difficult—one might even say very difficult!—as much for the orchestra as for the audience.” With the Second Concerto, he “wanted to produce a piece which would contrast with the First: a work which would be less bristling with difficulties for the orchestra and whose thematic material would be more pleasing. This intention explains the rather light and popular character of most of the themes of my latest concerto . . . .”

The phrase “rather light and popular character,” however, should not be equated with “lightweight” music; what Bartók had in mind is something more lucid and hence easier to grasp. However much the composer hoped the work would offer audiences an alluring entrée into his music, the Second Piano Concerto’s world premiere in Frankfurt marked an ominous terminal point in his performing career. Just a week later Hitler was appointed chancellor, and Bartók would never again give a public performance in Germany.

Certainly the Second Concerto is wonderfully enjoyable music even on first hearing, but Bartók makes no compromises in the complex development of his ideas. The overall architecture of the work is intricately planned and reveals the composer’s characteristic fascination with symmetrical patterns. Superficially, he appears to adhere to the familiar three-movement concerto template. But the Adagio, the concerto’s gravitational center, encompasses three “sub-movements,” with two Adagio sections surrounding a whirlwind Presto; Bartók described this central movement as “an Adagio containing a scherzo as its nucleus.” The Adagio sections mirror each other, yet there is variation in the second from the first. Similarly, the two fast-paced outer movements involve a mirroring, as the finale recycles thematic material from the first, but in varied forms such that this kinship is not always immediately recognizable. The result is that we seem to hear five distinct movements tracing an arch form through the entire concerto (in the pattern A-B-C-B-A).

Bartók’s sense of the piano as an inherently percussive instrument informs the texture and sound colors of each movement, not just in his solo but in the concerto’s orchestration as well: A varying sonic backdrop is provided for the piano as the concerto progresses, which further complicates the symmetrical structure. The opening Allegro limits the orchestra to woodwinds, brass, and percussion; we hear strings for the first time in the Adagio sections of the second movement (these are limited to strings and timpani); woodwinds and other percussion join in for the Presto middle section. The full orchestra plays together only in the final Allegro molto.

THE MUSIC Following an ascending flourish from the keyboard, the first movement sets off with a Baroque-sounding fanfare of brass that is immediately extended by the piano. This provides the basic thematic material, its dynamic rhythm driving the entire movement; melodically, the core theme is often compared to the grandly tolling finale tune from Stravinsky’s The Firebird. (That composer’s perky Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments of 1924 also serves as a model for the stringless scoring of the first movement.) Bartók’s neoclassical mode, though, has nothing of the self-conscious archness of Stravinsky’s ironic poses. Instead, the sense of forward momentum that pushes this music onward is exhilarating; the recapitulation in particular comes as a thrilling climax. Throughout, Bartók’s busy reshaping and contrapuntal splicing of thematic material is ceaselessly inventive.

The Adagio brings us another variant of the composer’s signature “night music,” with a highly atmospheric chorale of muted, vibrato-less strings playing stacked hollow fifths and moodily rolling thunder from the timpani. The effect is both serene and surreal, night plunging into fevered nightmare in the raving scherzo before the music returns to the framing slow dream. The piano’s “percussiveness” gains a new dimension in its dialogue with the timpani.

For his finale, Bartók resumes the neo-Baroque, festive energy of the first Allegro—now reinforced by the full orchestral palette—and even reclaims its thematic ideas, though these are further varied. To this repertory he adds a simple introductory idea: a demonic motif of insistent minor thirds for timpani and piano (which the composer calls a “frame theme”). The latter recurs as a sort of tag to mark sectional divisions within the movement. One of the concerto’s most-inspired passages arrives near the end when the tempo calms and woodwinds weave their gentle reflections around arpeggiated chords from the piano. But the meditation abruptly gives way to a valedictory flare of cheerful colors.

Thomas May  

Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

More About the Music
András Schiff with Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Warner) |  Leif Ove Andsnes with Pierre Boulez and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Bartók at the Piano: the complete recordings of the composer as pianist (Hungaraton) 

ReadingBéla Bartók, by Kenneth Chalmers, part of the 20th-Century Composers Series (Phaidon)  | The Master Musicians: Bartók, by Paul Griffiths (Dent & Sons)  | Béla Bartók: Letters, edited by János Demény (St. Martin’s)  |  Béla Bartók: Essays, edited by Benjamin Suchoff (University of Nebraska Press)  |  Béla Bartók: Life and Work, by Benjamin Suchoff (Scarecrow Press)  |  The Bartók Companion, edited by Malcolm Gillies (Faber and Faber)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Bartók Companion, edited by Amanda Bayley (Cambridge University Press)

(September 2017)