Geoffrey Norris at Gramophone discusses the piano concertos of Bartók.
Bartók – and perhaps especially the Bartók of the piano concertos – tends to divide opinion. There are those who find them arid and charmless. There are others who relish the invigorating energy of the rhythms and the vibrancy of the colour and are thrilled by the spectacle of performers surmounting music that so obviously and uncompromisingly poses supreme challenges. There are those who like the harmonic and folk-like tonal tang of Bartók. There are those who go even further and place Bartók on a par with Bach and Beethoven, drawing him into the pantheon of composers who transmitted through their music a palpable sense of spirituality and humanity. For many of us, the response to the piano concertos is probably an amalgam of some or all of these views, depending in part on which of the three concertos we are talking about. They are all different in temperament.
Bartók followed the barbarously percussive, dissonant First Concerto of 1926 with a Second (1930‑31), which still capitalises fully on a soloist’s virtuosity while sparing the piano some of its crueller battering. After several more years came the Third (1945), which is altogether of a gentler, more reflective if scarcely (in the outer movements) less dynamic mien. András Schiff describes it as “a wise man’s farewell”: together with the Viola Concerto, it was one of the very last pieces that Bartók wrote. So, was Bartók wise to write the other two concertos, or indeed to add a third? His piano concertos are not these days regarded as good box office in the way that, say, Rachmaninov’s Third or some of Prokofiev’s are. Bartók’s concertos seem to need a special reason for being included in a programme, be it a particularly lustrous artist or that they are part of a series featuring either the composer himself or Hungarian music in general.