Bartok: Solo Piano Works:

COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: Sony
WORKS: Solo Piano Works:
PERFORMER: Gyorgy Sandor (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SX4K 68275 DDD
Bartok’s piano music is absolutely central to the way we think about the modern piano. An exceptional pianist himself, the composer wrote three piano concertos that have become repertoire staples. He also provided irresistible pedagogical works that ensure that a healthy percentage of pianists begin absorbing Bart6k’s character and individuality from day one. Yet his solo music, even though there is much of it, is not performed or recorded very often.

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That alone makes Gyorgy Sander’s traversal of the Bart6k solo piano music – complete except for the great teaching series Mikrokosmos— an event. Moreover Sandor, the Hungarian pianist who studied piano with Bartok, plays with an assurance remarkable for a pianist in his eighties. Yet as one listens to these four very well-packed discs, it becomes clear why this significant and extensive part of the oeuvre of one of the century’s great composers has never widely caught on. The music simply isn’t very substantial.

Indeed, the vast majority of Bartok’s solo piano music is one collection after another of short character pieces, very often based upon (or transcriptions of) folk music. These are, it probably goes without saying, wonderfully colourful short pieces that traverse a wide range of moods and emotions. Yet the scale is always small (the one sonata is really a sonatina, and the Sonatina comprises three tiny dances on peasant themes from Transylvania that, together, last only four minutes), and the ambition is slight. One statistic tells it all: the four discs contain a total of 237 tracks, which makes the average length of a movement just slightly over one minute.

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Nor, unfortunately, does Sandor’s playing help, for all its clarity and all the care taken with proper voicing and style. He apparently plays the way Bart6k told him to play, and one is glad to read about that in his notes. But you can’t be taught flair or imagination. And a single disc or two of Bartok’s best and best-known piano works, such as those on Philips played with a captivating sense of immediacy by Zoltan Kocsis, would probably serve most listeners better. Still, Sander’s set is a valuable historical document, very well recorded and presented, and it offers the completist a fine reference tool. Mark Swed