Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Bartok IV: Of Milestones and Mandarins (A Study in Studies)

The Suite, Op.14 gets the credit for being the piece where Bartok crossed into full-blown modernism in his piano works, but if you've listened to the Suite I hope you'll agree with me that it's not a difficult piece to listen to and, as I wrote in the previous post, it seems to me to be (for the most part) a natural progression from much of what had gone before in the composer's development. The piece that, for me, truly marks the rubicon moment came two years later - the Three Etudes, Op.18.

The Etudes are also a natural progression, of course - but the 'progressive' leap into 'modernity' seems a much bigger jump this time. So much so that parts of the third piece sounds uncannily like a foretaste of Ligeti's own etudes from over 60 years later (I'm thinking of Désordre). Moreover, when I first heard them over a decade ago, I heard lots of anticipations of Messiaen too in the second and third studies (especially in the sounds of the chords, which sound very much like what Messiaen would go on to call 'colour chords' and make a corner stone of his style). Anyone who knows Messiaen's music well and then encounters this work will have an 'Aha!' moment. Of course, Ligeti will almost certainly have had Bartok's Etudes in mind when writing his own and it's a matter of record than Messiaen knew these very pieces and was enthusiastic in general about Bartok's music - so they were only 'foretastes' and 'anticipations' in a sort-of poetic sense (i.e. not really at all!) Still, these flavours of The Future do strongly suggest just how 'advanced' the Three Etudes feel.

When I first heard the pieces I was bowled over by them. My notes from the time suggest I was swept away in astonishment by them, talking in purple prose about the experience of listening to the third study, for example, as being "like staring into the heart of a great fire". I was much younger then! (Is my prose always free from purple even now?) On rehearing them I was bowled over all over again. I'd forgotten how different they sound from every Bartok piece that had gone before and I bet quite a few newcomers who've been listening to some (hopefully all) of the earlier pieces might find these much tougher pieces than their predecessors. Partly this is due to the sheer virtuosity of the music, as well as as the extraordinary weight of sound in the work, partly also because the melodic, folk-music element is less obvious (though it's there!) and partly because the dissonance is (at times) thrust so dramatically down our ear-holes, but partly it has to be because the techniques used really are more radical than before. For those who know the pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, these pieces belong to its world - and can be said to be studies written in preparation for that great, strange, fierce modernist score.

The stormy first Study is recognisably in the same spirit as many of the composer's earlier barbaric allegros - a ferociously-driven toccata, whose melodies and punching rhythms still audibly owe some of their character to East European folk music though, especially in the central passage, these melodic shapes get caught up and obscured by ostinatos and abstract-sounding pattern-making, like great swirls of wind and rain. The brilliant, crashing chords that punctuate the work's climaxes have something of thunder and lightning about them. This may not be too fanciful ('purple' you might say!), as Bartok was to go on to imitate nature in many of his best-known works (all those chirping insects and twittering birds at the heart of the slow movement of the popular Third Piano Concerto, for example).

The second Study opens to more swirling figures, though these are mysterious ones beneath which a no less mysterious melody treads, lost in its own dark broodings. Think Bernard Hermann conjuring up a sinister nocturnal cityscape, rain-swept with lonely figures walking dangerous streets. The menace grows as octave, trills and clangorous chords enter the scene. A climax reached, the music gradually ebbs away before stopping on an unresolved harmony.

The third study begins with  mysterious arpeggios and bell-like sounds but the tempo soon picks up and a dizzying dance of disorder begins, glinting dissonant chords careering crazily across a slippery moto perpetuo accompaniment like some unhinged premonition of boogie-woogie. The intensity slackens and a more regular tune enters (with simple dotted rhythms). It is assailed and the madness begins again. The fate of the victims in the Miraculous Mandarin seems close at hand!

The Three Etudes are richly-imagined masterpieces, worthy of comparison with such widely-played piano greats as Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit and Debussy's Images & Preludes (though his wonderful Etudes are woefully neglected too). I've barely touched on their technical advances but however seminal Schoenberg's various sets of piano pieces (such as Op.11 and Op.19) and Webern's Variations, Op27, they don't in any way surpass in achievement these Bartok pieces and the much-played Berg Piano Sonata, Op.1 is, for all its fine qualities, inferior to them. I bow to no one in my love of Stravinsky, but his piano pieces - even including his own seminal efforts, the Piano Sonata and the Serenade in A - are also in no way superior to these Bartok studies (and many of the most played ones are comparatively trivial). Of course, this can be said about many of Bartok's more experimental pieces, but this case seems particularly egregious.

Due to this unwarranted neglect, I think the Etudes need a post all to themselves!

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