Commentary Magazine


Bartók

To the Editor:

Samuel Lipman’s “Bartók at the Piano” [May] is most perceptive and convincing. One of his observations, however, is based on a mistaken premise and cannot properly be used to support his somewhat negative opinion of Bartók as a pianist. In evaluating Bartók’s recorded performance of his popular miniature “Evening in Transylvania” (better known as “Evening in the Country”), Mr. Lipman objects to a seemingly “arbitrary dislocation of the natural rhythmic flow” in the rendition of the main theme; he also adds that “pianist Bartók seems disinclined to observe the scrupulous markings of composer Bartók.” This example does not warrant the conclusion Mr. Lipman draws from it. The theme in question, a freely flowing pentatonic chant, deeply rooted in the Hungarian folk idiom, is by its very nature open to subtle metric fluctuations in performance and is very difficult, indeed impossible, to pin down in terms of exact notation.

Bartók, who performed this piece by popular request at nearly all of his concerts, obviously had problems when committing the theme to paper. The original notation of 1908 was revised by him in the early 1930’s and, as a result, there are two authentic printed versions available. Ideally, the theme should have been notated without bar lines, but Bartók—because he wrote the piece with a didactic purpose in mind—probably felt that metric indications would be helpful for the student. It is also obvious that he did not feel bound by either of the note pictures he devised, and he deviated from them almost every time he performed the work. This is by no means proof, as Mr. Lipman suggests, that Bartók’s solo playing had “a certain wayward quality,” or was a sign of “an almost vulgar taste,” or “a lack of involvement in the structure of music.”

All the foregoing notwithstanding, it would be difficult to disagree with Mr. Lipman’s general conclusion that Bartók, a great composer by all accounts, was not one of the immortals of pianism.

Denes Agay
New York City

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Samuel Lipman writes:

Denes Agay is quite correct to point to the difficulty of notating folk-derived music in the system which has been developed out of, and for, our art-music tradition. But in the case of “Evening in Transylvania” Bartók did make the effort, and was not completely successful in conveying both the full implications of his own notation and the artistic shape of the piece. It is as if the composer Bartók and the pianist Bartók fought, and neither won: the notation was not realized and the musical effect was incomplete. Whether composer Bartók might have done better I don’t know. Pianist Bartók, I think, could have.

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