Bartók and Kurtág Tellingly Juxtaposed by Cédric Tiberghien


Bartók and Kurtág: Cédric Tiberghien (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 24.5.2016 (MB)

Bartók – Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs
Eight Improvisations of Hungarian Peasant Songs, op.20
Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csík
Kurtág – Pieces from Játékok, interspersed with:
Bartok – Sonatina; Pieces from Mikrokosmos, vol.5
Bartók – Six Romanian Folk Dances

Six months ago, at the end of Pierre Boulez’s ninetieth-anniversary year and thus shortly before his death, Cédric Tiberghien gave a Wigmore Hall recital in which he interwove works by Boulez and Bartók. Alas, I was unable to attend, but this recital, in which he did something similar with Kurtág, made up for some of that disappointment.

I say ‘interwove’, but the first half was devoted entirely to Bartók. For so fine a pianist, and so fine a composer of music involving the piano, there is not so much solo piano music as one might expect; or rather, there is not much larger-scale piano music. Even the Sonata, heard here as conclusion to the first half, is relatively brief. Before that, we heard two sets of short pieces. First came the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, which Bartók groups into four sections – so not entirely unlike a sonata, with a broad – too broad? – understanding of the term. Tiberghien’s opening, with the first of the ‘Four Old Tunes’, was bold, his generous use of the sustaining pedal providing its own atmospheric justification. Following that mini-‘overture’, we heard Debussyan echoes turned to Lisztian ends, a keen sense of form exhibiting itself throughout. The Scherzo, no.5, once again showed post-Debussyan awareness, whilst retaining very much its own character. The ‘Ballad’, a theme and variations, was exploratory in a way that made it sound close to the (contemporaneous) Wooden Prince, whilst also looking forward to the Piano Concertos. Variation form inevitably brought echoes of Beethoven too. The ‘Old Dance Tunes’ certainly danced, and danced with great individuality. (Think of Mozart’s exquisite sets of dances, which only sound the same to those who are not listening.) Liszt was never far away; when is he in Bartók?

The Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs arguably offer more of Bartók ‘himself’, but I am not sure the distinction is an especially illuminating one. Music is music; it is good or bad, or perhaps something in between. This is good, as was Tiberghien’s performance. The first number bore a nostalgia born of still greater mastery, wonderfully conjured up by the pianist with great depth of tone (and, I think, of soul). Mood swings were skilfully integrated in the ‘Molto capriccioso’; here, and not here, I wondered whether there might be something of Bartók answering the aphoristic Schoenberg of the op.19 Six Little Piano Pieces. Schoenberg again came to mind in the penultimate piece, ‘Sostenuto, rubato’, Tiberghien luxuriating in its foreshortened or threatened languor, whilst maintaining a sense of urgency. The ‘sound’ is, of course, nothing like Schoenberg, but perhaps there is something of a commonality of spirit. Bartók’s closing ‘Allegro’ was properly climactic, Tiberghien striking a fine balance between deliberation, disjuncture, and rhythmic propulsion.

The Sonata undoubtedly showed the composer of the first two Piano Concertos at work. Tiberghien brought the world of the 1920s very much to the fore; rhythmic comparisons with Stravinsky more than once suggested themselves. In some senses, this is more ‘abstract’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ music, but one can make too much of such oppositions. Integration is more the thing, as it was here in performance too. ‘Sostenuto’ was the word that came to mind before I checked Bartók’s marking for the second movement: ‘Sostenuto e pesante’. Disruptions thereby sounded all the more telling when they came. The build-up to climaxes that were perhaps never quite climactic was unerringly shaped. Kinship and yet also difference from the earlier ‘folk’ music was apparent in the finale. Likewise Bartók’s internationalism that yet incorporates elements of the ‘national’. Perhaps that is another way of saying the same thing. With an almost Schoenbergian wealth of information and Mozartian melodic profusion, this made for a thrilling conclusion.

Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csík opened the second half. Charming, unquestionably beautiful, they were definitely ‘earlier’ than that we had heard before. There then followed two of the several pieces extracted from Kurtág’s Játékok. Musical procedure was very much to the fore, Webern-like, in the ‘Hommage à Bartók’. Sonority there and in ‘All’ongherese – Hommage à Gösta Neuwirth 60’ was forever startling, in all manner of ways, Tiberghien’s advocacy as focused as one could wish for. ‘Bagpipes’ could be seen as well as heard in Bartók’s Sonatina, likewise the bears of the ‘Bear Dance’. Tiberghien offered a warm yet pristine performance, sounding retrospectively as an intensification of Kurtág’s post-Webern explorations. Petrushka sounded in the finale, even before I had noticed the cunning follow-up of Kurtág’s ‘Hommage à Ferenc Farkas (3) – (evocation of Petrushka)’. In the next three Kurtág pieces, we heard him out-Weberning Webern (‘five-finger play – chromatic exercise), doing just what the title suggested (‘Pen drawing, Valediction to Erszébet Scháar), and going still further with the out-Weberning Webern (‘Russian Dance’).

Tiberghien then interspersed selections from Mikrokosmos with further selections from Játékok. The first Bartók six (122-127) suggested the falsity of another opposition: this time between technical and ‘musical’ requirements. Likewise the coherence of apparent irregularity. Humour shone through in Kurtág’s ‘La Fille aux cheveux de lin – enragée’, all the more so for being played with all the seriousness of Bartók’s post-Debussyan essays. Radical contrast, whether in simplicity (‘A flower for Márta’) or something akin to miniature Boulez (‘Face to face (János Demény in memoriam)’), ensued.

Bartok’s nos 128-33 seemed very much to set the scene for the next selection from Játékok, which also drew again on that Debussyan inheritance, in an utterly novel way (so it sounded here, anyway). ‘Process’ and ‘music’ were again shown to be as one in Bartók’s nos 134-39, ravishingly performed as part of a particularly fine-woven tapestry. The final three pieces by Kurtág seemed very much to come as fulfilment of so many of the tendencies heard earlier: fine programming and performance. At times almost de profundis, and yet also with what one might call a bearable lightness of being, Tiberghien resolved so much – and yet also left so much open – in ‘The very last conversation with Lászo Dörnyei’. Bartók’s Six Romanian Folk Dances could then sound as almost a written-in encore. If I have taken until now to mention Tiberghien’s fineness of touch, that is probably because it never drew attention to itself.

Mark Berry

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