BARTOK: Mikrokosmos – Complete – Georges Solchany, piano
EMI Classics 6 95570-2. (2 CDs) 59:33; 71:23 ****:
Considered the milestone in Bartok’s keyboard oeuvre, the 153 “progressive” pieces that comprise Mikrokosmos (1926-1939) demonstrate the range of Bartok’s melodic-harmonic syntax, which embraced his Hungarian/Magyar heritage and spliced it to procedures taken from Bach and the French clavecinists. Ostensibly, Bartok–who had long pondered a “method” for his particular sound world–wrote the works to develop the musical pedagogy for son Peter. Regional and folk idioms alternate in order of increasing difficulty, even as they adhere to structures imbibed from Bach’s Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Klavier. Hungarian pianist Georges Solchany recorded the Six Books in 1973-1975 in Paris, and his survey stands up well against the more famous classic reading by his compatriot Gyorgy Sandor.
Simple pieces for two hands open Book I, but the music quickly evolves complications, like dotted rhythms, imitation, registration shifts, and various stretches of both functional tonality and folk modality. At the conclusion of Book I, Bartok offers a free canon with single notes in each hand. Book II adds staccato and legato applications, crescendos and decrescendos, and melodies calling for the sustaining pedal. The rhythms become increasingly irregular, a vital aspect of Magyar sensibility. Lydian and Mixolydian pieces accompany Yugoslavian and Transylvanian styles, Oriental and Pentatonic styles, and character pieces like those simply marked “Buzzing” (No. 63) or “Accents” (No. 57). Because many of the pieces copy baroque dances or partitas, we well wonder how Solchany would fare with Bartok’s idols, Bach and Scarlatti.
Book III ushers in a more evocative phase of the “little worlds.” The pieces expand in scale and suggest miniature tone-poems and songs without words rather than didactic exercises. Bartok incorporates his penchant for asymmetrical pitches into a sound world indebted both to Magyar folklore and Debussy’s more “impressionist” preludes. For the pieces like No. 86, Two Major Pentachords, the occasional sojourn into atonal chromaticism makes itself known., also in the Chromatic Inventions, Nos. 91-92. There are homages to Bach and Schumann (Nos. 79 and 80) and a lovely In the Russian Style (No. 90). Both Dragon’s Dance (No. 72) and Jolts (No. 96) convey the Bartok of primitive and savage power from the Piano Concerto No. 1 and The Miraculous Mandarin.
Book IV takes us into Bartok’s experiments in bitonality, as each hand indulges in a different, even wayward, key signature. The Notturno (No. 97) sets the initial tone of moody modal romanticism. Excursions into major and minor tonalities become spirited games or labyrinthine journeys, invoking folk songs or truncated sonata-movements. Wandering Through the Keys (No. 104) And the Sounds Clash and Clang (No. 110) increasingly echo Debussy’s own set of keyboard etudes. No. 109, From the Island of Bali (another Debussy motif), alludes to the gamelan. The designation “folk tune” comes increasingly to the fore, the Magyar ethos coloring a world of dancing angles and shadows. Triplets in 9/8 Time (No. 118) add some dexterity to our metrical vocabulary. Several of the latter sections from Nos. 114-121 re-write Bach inventions in Bartok’s idiosyncratic modernism.
Book V no longer sees its didactic character as essential and moves towards the virtuosic. Bagpipe (No. 138) and Whole-Tone Scales (No. 136) fuse Bartok’s folkish chromatic interests with his innate exoticism. Syncopations, double notes, and metric asymmetries have become the rule, sometimes in a sarcastic vein, as in Jack-in-the-Box (No. 139). Perpetuum mobile (No .135) rewrites the Schumann Op. 7 Toccata. Book VI becomes obsessed with Bulgarian rhythm and chromatic harmony, much of which finds its way into the first two Piano Concertos. It opens with Free Variations (No. 140), a study in kinship with the Allegro barbaro and various pieces by Prokofiev. From the Diary of a Fly (No. 142) musically lies in the realm of Kafka, an attempt at micro-tonality in several respects. In the world of Chromatic Inversion III (No. 145) we find fellow explorers Kurtag and Ligeti. Played with exuberant energy and a thorough immersion into the Bartok style, Solchany’s Mikorokosmos makes an essential primer for anyone fascinated by Bartok’s musical evolution and pedagogy.