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It is 1975. In the living room of a Victorian house in the middle of Bedford sits a nine-year-old boy at the piano. Fired by a life-changing encounter with the music of Mozart he recently started lessons, and dreams of one day “going in for” music.
For now though, he stares quizzically at the somewhat forbidding book on the music stand – 32 Klavierstücke by somebody called Béla Bartók. His piano teacher has set the first two pieces this week – The Little Lane and Game.
But what kind of music is this?? Very odd… but enchanting!
Four decades later, and one of the greatest joys and privileges I experience as a piano teacher is to see – time and time again – piano students young and old experience this same epiphany, this first discovery of the beguiling beauty and brilliance of Bartók’s extraordinary music for piano.
Bartók is very firmly established as my favourite composer of the 20th Century, if not of any century.
32 Klavierstücke disappeared from the market some years ago, leaving the full edition of Bartók’s For Children (two volumes, Boosey & Hawkes) and Mikrokosmos (six volumes, Boosey & Hawkes) as the primary sources of his best educational pieces, as well as using various other publications to source other popular pieces, such as the ‘Romanian Christmas Carols’ (Universal Edition) and ‘Ten Easy Pieces’ (Editio Musica Budapest).
But 70 years on from the composer’s death from leukemia in New York in 1945, copyright restrictions have been relaxed and publishers can now reappraise their commitment to publishing his wider output.
The Definitive Bartók Edition
Boosey & Hawkes, having long championed Bartók’s music, seem pleased to at last bring us a broader selection of his work in affordable and lavishly presented volumes.
The Definitive Bartók Edition comprises two piano volumes called the Bartók Piano Collection Books 1 and 2. Alongside these, Boosey & Hawkes are publishing a series of other collections featuring Bartók’s pieces arranged for other instruments.
Between them the two volumes of The Bartók Piano Collection bring together 58 pieces from a variety of sources, compiled by Hywel Davies, and including CD recordings of performances by Iain Farrington.
Each book includes a photograph and concise biography of the composer. This is written in rather adult language, and with quite a lot of technical vocabulary – for example, we are told that Bartók was an “assiduous ethnomusicologist” who “never espoused atonality as a compositional technique”. Children might skip this part!
The music itself is beautifully presented, in much clearer and well-spaced notation than I remember from 32 Klavierstücke. All the pieces have been freshly engraved and edited for this edition, and many now have titles that will be unfamiliar. These have been derived from the words to the original folk melodies which Bartók drew on, with the lyrics included in the footnotes. I suspect this will further add to the appeal of the pieces for children approaching them for the first time.
The excellent footnotes throughout the books also include quotations from Bartók himself, as well as some very helpful background and source information, performance suggestions and simple analysis of the pieces. These comments are generally brief but helpful, and provide a great example of how a really good editor can enhance the value of a publication.
My CD collection has grown over the years to include recordings of these pieces by pianists including György Sándor, Zoltán Kocsis, Jenö Jandó and the historic recordings by Bartók himself. Aware that comparing Iain Farrington’s demonstration recordings with such competition would be obtuse, I put on the CD with some hesitancy!
Allowing for any bias that comes from listening to these pieces in so many outstanding versions, and from developing and performing my own interpretations over many years, I still have to say that I really enjoyed Iain’s recordings immensely. They are recorded with a full and warm piano sound, and Iain’s attention to the written details is certainly exemplary.
Students will undoubtedly enjoy getting to know all of these pieces through Iain’s performances, and I have no hesitation in commending his readings. The CDs add considerable value to the package.
For those who want the full details, here goes:
- For Children I: numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 11, 17, 26
- For Children II: numbers 3, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 34
- Mikrokosmos: numbers 40, 41, 47, 75, 87, 88, 109
- Fourteen Bagatelles: Numbers 5, 6.
- Ten Easy Pieces: number 8
- Romanian Christmas Carols: Set 2 numbers 4, 7
- For Children I: numbers 21, 27, 30, 33, 37
- For Children II: numbers 8, 18, 26, 28, 29
- Mikrokosmos: numbers 100, 102, 107, 113, 115, 126, 139, 142
- Nine Little Piano Pieces: number 3
- Ten Easy Pieces: numbers 3, 6, 7, 10
- Seven Sketches: numbers 5, 6
- Romanian Folk Dances: numbers 1-4
This is a selection which seems to me ideally representative, broadly appealing, varied – it would be difficult to better.
In terms of level, the pieces in Book 1 roughly equate to UK Grades 1-5 while Book 2 includes pieces from around Grades 2-7. Notice that this allows for a considerable overlap – for the best selection of Bartók’s music, both books are needed in my view, perhaps starting with the first book and supplementing with the second from around Grade 3.
Bartók aficionados will note the inclusion of several favourites from Mikrokosmos, such as From the Island of Bali in Book 1 and Melody in the Mist, Jack-in-the-box and From the Diary of a Fly in Book 2. True Mikrokosmos enthusiasts will want to keep using the full six volumes, but for most players the included selection represents an attractive introduction to Bartók’s modernistic music alongside the more folk-inspired pieces.
So what’s missing? From Mikrokosmos I would like to have seen numbers 125 Boating and 128 Stamping Dance, both of which are popular with students. Even more noticeable in its absence is the otherwise ubiquitous Evening in the Village from the Ten Easy Pieces. And from For Children I missed number 8 Children’s Game, surely the most perfect musical portrait of “musical statues”, and the frankly hilarious number 36 Drunkard’s Song.
Finally, with Romanian Folk Dances 1-4 all included in Book 2, it would have been great to see the last two dances as well, completing the set. Though they are more difficult, it would have been the icing on the cake for pupils wanting to stretch themselves further.
That the books triumph in the absence of these proven favourites merely underlines how extraordinary an educational composer Bartók surely was, and what great collections these are!
The Definitive Bartók Edition is an excellent choice for players everywhere, providing an illuminating, imaginative and well-rounded selection of his educational and easier pieces. I will certainly be considering this a compulsory purchase for all my students moving forward.
And if these books also serve to whet the appetite, inspiring players to dig deeper for the many other golden nuggets in Bartók’s huge output – so much the better!
If I have resorted to hyperbole in this review, it is because the nine-year-old boy who fell in love with Bartók’s music in 1975 is still alive in me, and the flame lit all those years ago burns brighter than ever.
As an educational composer, Bartók of course remains in a class of his own. But also, through many of these pieces folk traditions long extinct live on, preserving a culture that can’t otherwise be recreated. In that respect I can’t help feeling that the ongoing preservation of our culture – both folk and art – rests at least in part on the success of publications such as these in inspiring a new generation of musicians to carry the flame onward.
Please buy these books without hesitation!
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