Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Piano Concerto No. 3 by Bela Bartok (1881-1945)

The Hungarian composer Bela Bartok showed his musical gifts from a very early age. After careful tutelage from his amateur pianist mother, at age 13 Bartok made his earliest forays in the realm of composition. Four years later, although accepted into the Vienna Conservatory of Music, he elected to attend the Budapest Academy instead. His early interest and influences centered on the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss, but his great life work (along with his colleague Zoltan Kodaly) was to collate and transcribe the folk music of his native land. Inevitably the melodies and harmonies were assimilated into his own compositions. In 1940, Bartok and his wife left war-torn Europe to live in New York. Despite his being awarded a grant to continue his research on Yugoslav folksongs, and some success concretizing, finances were precarious. Bartok had already written two piano concertos by this time, but--partly because of the need to supplement his income--he started on a third. It soon became evident that his health was so poor, this work would be performed by his wife, as a legacy. He finished all but 17 bars of the Third Piano Concerto by the time of his death. It was completed by a friend, and performance details were added by Eugene Ormandy, who conducted the first performance. The work was immediately acclaimed, and has become a staple of the concert pianist’s repertoire throughout the world.

Elements of folk influence and mainstream classical tradition mingle in this at times powerful at times playful work. There are three contrasting movements. The first, Allegretto, opens with a beautifully relaxed and rhapsodic melody accompanied by gentle murmurings from the strings. The music progresses seamlessly to a whimsical ending. The second movement, intriguingly titled Adagio religioso (Bartok was an atheist), is characterized by serenity, as the strings create a hushed atmosphere sustained by the simple chords of the solo piano. Perhaps Bartok was recalling the hymns of his adopted continent, as Copland did also in his Appalachian Spring. A central section is marked by scurrying interjections from solo winds and xylophone (insect chirpings? bird calls?) before the mood of calm returns. The finale (Allegro vivace) is a headlong rush, full of brilliant rhythmic and melodic ideas bounced between orchestra and soloist. Hard to believe this delightful, blithe composition was penned by a dying man!