Notes 60.2 (2003) 452-455
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Bartók and the Piano: A Performer's View. By Barbara Nissman. Lanhan, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002. [xiii, 319. p. ISBN 0-8108-4301-3. $49.95.] Music examples, bibliography, indexes, compact disc.
Since the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (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 These works range from his adolescent, unpublished four-movement sonata (1898) that has "the heaviness of Brahms, the octaves of Liszt, and the pomposity of Wagner" (p. 3); to increasingly folk-inspired,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 his life (1945), a work that "achieves a true classical simplicity" (p. 250). While Bartók'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 Bartók's entire piano output is likewise a microcosm of his entire oeuvre. To delve deeply into the piano works is to gain insight into Bartók's extraordinary string quartets and orchestral works as well.
Pianist Barbara Nissman is the ideal performer/scholar to provide such an in-depth study of Bartók'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 , 3 CDs) that won nominations for Record of the Year from both Gramophone and American Record Guide. Her subsequent recordings of the nine piano sonatas of Sergey Prokofiev have received the highest praise, and are now available on Pierian Records (Pierian 7 , 3 CDs).
Nissman recently decided to focus her considerable talents on preparing to record piano music of Bartók. While immersing herself in Bartók'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 [End Page 452] volume that examines not only Bartók'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 Bartók'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 Bartók's early development. Some influences may be inferred by the music itself, while others are clearly documented in Bartók's own letters or other sources. Works such as the Four Piano Pieces (1903) and the Dirges (1909- 10) would not be what they are without Bartók's thorough familiarity with Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Franz Liszt, and Claude Debussy. Nissman's quotations of Bartók'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 Bartók about Franz Liszt, a composer too frequently dismissed as a mere showman. Liszt's influence on Bartók was enormous, and not...