Bartok Festival

András Schiff/Mikrokosmos Quartet

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 15 June 2007 4.5 stars


Bartók enthusiasts, especially lovers of high quality solo and chamber music performances, had a memorable time during the Bartók mini-festival (5, 7 and 10 June) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

This series of three concerts was the brainchild of the great Hungarian musician András Schiff, who was keen to perform Bartók's major piano works within a cycle and - at the same time - to present all six of the composer's String Quartets. The latter were performed by the Mikrokosmos Quartet, the members of which are fellow Hungarian musicians of distinction. Bartók's great piano compositions were contrasted with several of his piano pieces in smaller forms, and his Second Sonata for Violin and Piano was also performed. Thus contrast between small and large forms, as well as between piano and strings, provided the variety during these continuously high quality performances.

Each of the three concerts started and concluded with a string quartet, framing the piano compositions. Rather then performing them in chronological order, the quartet pairs included an earlier and a later quartet on each occasion. Nevertheless, the first concert started with Quartet No. 1 and the last concert concluded with Quartet No. 6, facilitating a historical perspective of the composer's works in the genre; the quartet pairing consisted of Nos. 1 and 4, Nos. 2 and 5, and Nos. 3 and 6. Each of the concerts included both large and small form piano compositions. Whether one attended only one or more concerts of the festival, a substantial picture of Bartók's artistry emerged.

Quartet No. 1 (with its first sketches dating from 1907, but only completed in 1909) starts with a mostly subdued slow movement. It served as a dirge for Bartók to express his grief at the recent rejection of his overtures of love towards the violinist Stefi Geyer. The gentle, dolce tone is prominent in the opening and closing sections of the second movement, too; the Mikrokosmos Quartet played it with a gentle and pure tone when so required, but also with passion and grandeur at the appropriate places. When the music is marked molto appassionato half-way through the first movement, Sándor Papp (viola) and Zoltán Tuska (second violin) convinced us of the pain of rejected love. The final seven bars of the first movement, from majestic organ-like chords to subdued resignation, confirmed the grief. Though possibly based on a Hungarian art song, in Bartók's realisation and as performed by the great cellist Miklós Perényi the solo cello part in the introduction to the final movement sounded like the noblest Hungarian folk song. Apart from the short piů largo section towards the end, the movement brought light, joy, excitement and brilliance.

Quartet No. 2 (1914/15-17) is influenced by Bartók's folk music-collecting field trip to North Algiers in 1913: the robust character and material of the second movement is derived from Arabic folk music. I thought that the rhythm was not tight enough in the Mikrokosmos' performance, but their interpretation of the staccato dots over the furious quaver notes might differ from mine. In the first movement, leader Gábor Takács-Nagy played the opening theme as the most beautiful song of nature.

Quartet No. 3 (1927) won first prize in the Philadelphia Musical Fund Society's competition in 1928. Though it consists of two main parts - Prima Parte: Moderato and Seconda Parte: Allegro - the composition can be regarded as one continuous movement (as there is no break between the two parts) or a piece in four parts (as after the second part Bartók inserts a transformed return of the first part - Ricapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato - followed by the Coda: Allegro molto). This two-part structure, slow and fast, is the form of the traditional Hungarian recruiting dance the verbunkos and the Hungarian dance the csárdás. Although a couple of times (at the start of new sections) the ensemble was momentarily shaky, the performance was magnificent. There was no doubt that just like Bartók's structure, the players too were Hungarian. Some of the lead violinist and cellist's themes could not have been played better than Takács-Nagy and Perényi's renditions here.

Quartet No. 4 (1928) tests the players' technical ability considerably but the Mikrokosmos Quartet delivered perfection. The second (Prestissimo, con sordino) and fourth (Allegretto pizzicato) movements were breathtaking while also highly musical. With his forward-looking phrasing, leader Takács-Nagy told a story even in the fastest and technically busiest phrases. It is unlikely that any other string quartet in the world could match the Mikrokosmos' performance of the third movement (Non troppo lento): in Perényi's hands the long solo cello part, one of Bartók's responses to the hora lunga folk song type, sounded like the most disciplined but also the saddest lament in music.

Occasionally and just briefly the players were not entirely together in the first movement (Allegro) of Quartet No. 5 (1934) but the ensuing four movements were delivered as the composer must have wished. In the second movement (Adagio Molto) Takács-Nagy's expressive intonation would have pleased Bartók who used half and double flats and sharps in his folk music notations. The complicated Bulgarian-type rhythm of the third movement (Scherzo) caused no problems to the players who also presented the virtuoso fifth movement (Allegro vivace - Presto) with humour. Praise is due to second violinist Zoltán Tuska who played the fifth movement's short barrel-organ type melody with perfect indifference (Allegretto, con indifferenza).

It is likely that by the time they reached the final item of the mini-festival - the Quartet No. 6 (1939) - the players were slightly tired. Nevertheless, their performance was excellent and there were many moments to treasure. In the Rubato section of the second movement cellist Perényi declaimed his melody as if playing in the highest position of the cello was the most natural thing to do and viola player Sándor Papp gave passionate support with his four-string pizzicato chords. The Burletta section of the third movement was full of humour, instigated by Takács-Nagy's sharp rhythms and energetic personality. The great Mesto theme, introducing each of the four movements by viola, cello and first violin respectively, had individual readings by each player: one was slightly nervous, one somewhat percussive and one fully melodic. However, Bartók's music shone through clearly and powerfully.

During Bartók's Second Sonata for Violin and Piano (1922) violinist Takács-Nagy sat immediately in front of the piano, next to pianist András Schiff and, therefore, also next to the keyboard. The piano lid was open but the ensemble work, as well as the placing of the violinist, was such that neither instrument outplayed the other. The two-movement design (Molto moderato, Allegretto) is an expansion on the pattern of Hungarian rhapsody (also the verbunkos and the csárdás), a slow and relatively lyrical opening section followed by a much quicker dance-like finale.

In the first movement the Hungarian soul was evident in the violin's cantabile sounds, as if singing the songs of the 'puszta' (Hungarian plane); in the second movement (Allegretto) Bartók's humour was ably demonstrated (for example at the Comodo section). Schiff gave modest and reliable support, whether to the singing or the florid notes of the violin, but commanded the field - as required - at sections such as the scherzando in the second movement.

Takács-Nagy always tells a story, whether in florid semiquavers or slower (even chordal) passages. His violin technique is remarkable. His controlled slow glissando over the interval of ten notes during only two quaver beats early in the first movement was impressive, as was his singing tone during a succession of thirteen different harmonic notes in the second movement. Schiff and Takács-Nagy concentrated on the sounds, reserving eye-contact only for such moments when a tricky tempo change or sudden sharp dynamic change (from piano to fortissimo) occurred. This performance was chamber music at its very best.

András Schiff is a great musician-pianist and he is passionate about Bartók. It is no exaggeration to say that, on the occasion of this mini-festival, he presented definitive performances of Bartók's piano compositions. The pieces were distributed in such a way that each of the three concerts contained shorter and longer pieces as well as earlier and later compositions.

I was disappointed that no details (such as the numbers of the pieces and titles) were given about the selection from For Children (1908-09). I spotted eight pieces, a fellow reviewer mentioned six. In the event it turned out that we heard ten pieces from the seventy-nine. But why keep the number and their titles in secret, especially as all encores at the festival were carefully and clearly announced? Schiff's playing showed understanding of folk music performances (the pieces are folk song arrangements) but children trying to copy Schiff should not do so at their music exams: Schiff's beautiful rhythmic freedom (that is agogic accents) might not be appreciated by examiners.

The Three Burlesques (1908, 1911 and 1910) - the second of which is the relatively well-known Slightly Tipsy - was a good choice to follow For Children, the first publication of which coincided with the first of these three pieces. Titled as Quarrel, the first thirty-eight bars have quaver notes in a very fast tempo: understandably Schiff almost danced at the keyboard when at last he reached a few leggierissimo crotchet bars.

Because of their similarities, Nos. 7 to 15 of the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (1914 -18) could be regarded as variations of one another. At any event, these pieces are marked as Nine Old Dance Tunes and Schiff played them in the appropriate style.

In the third piece of Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Tunes (1916, 1927), Schiff played right-hand doubling octave passages when Bartók writes single lines but offers octaves as ossia. Clearly, Schiff is not in music for an easy life.

At times Schiff seemed to be in a world of his own. Surprisingly he started the Suite, Op. 14 (1916), while some of the audience was still talking. Evidently gone are the days when András Schiff would stop playing if the audience coughed. On the other hand, at the conclusion of this piece he held the audience for a long time even though Bartók did not indicate a pause. There is a composed pause at the end of the first movement (Allegretto), but Schiff ignored it. His piano sang beautifully in the Tranquillo section of the second movement (Scherzo) and his playing in the almost non-stop quavers in the third movement (Allegro molto) convincingly indicated the wild, rhythmic character of the Arabic music of North Africa.

Schiff brought out the slowly descending bass line in the Piu sostenuto section of the fourth movement (Sostenuto) with beauty, and his rubato within the bar just before the end was magical.

The Out of Doors Suite (1926) was omitted from the pre-publicity of the festival. Those of us who like to take music scores to concerts were slightly disappointed. However, Schiff's playing soon compensated. In the third movement (Musette) the grace-note tremolos over the bagpipe chords sounded like genuine decorations. In the fourth movement (The Night's Music) the decoration groups were light enough to be clearly distinguished from the main notes. In the final movement (The Chase) Schiff made the relentless left-hand semiquaver passages and right-hand octave passages sound easy.

Schiff showed the barbaric character of the first movement (Allegro moderato) of the great Sonata for Piano (1926) without ignoring the humour at the repeated right-hand notes with octave appogiaturas. The beauty was magical in the lament of the second movement (Sostenuto e pesante), while the last movement (Allegro molto) truly indicated a folk dance with peasant flute, bagpipes and village fiddlers.

In the first of the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, from Book VI of the Mikrokosmos (1926, 1932-39) I could have been fooled into thinking that I was listening to a Hungarian folk song (in the Calmo section). In the third dance, Schiff boldly exposed the repeated fifth chords as well as the hidden melody in the bass line. In the fourth dance we had humour: Schiff added trills - where none were written but were probably assumed - in the right-hand octave passage of the a tempo section. We had purity in the fifth and sixth dances: Schiff used no pedal for long sections.

Bartók's solo piano and chamber music was superbly represented at this festival. The performances were of such a high standard that at times I wondered if I was still earth-bound. Sadly, I can keep only the memory (as far as I know, the performances were not recorded) and the programme notes.

The latter caused slight concern: all compositions in the programme were shown with their old catalogue numbers yet in his new catalogue (as seen in his book published by the University of California Press in 1996) the eminent Bartók scholar László Somfai renumbered all of Bartók's compositions. Nevertheless, this was a festival to cherish for a long time to come.

By Agnes Kory