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8.557821-22 - BARTOK, B.: Piano Music, Vol. 5 (Jando) - Mikrokosmos (complete)


English German
Bla Bartk (1881-1945)
Mikrokosmos

The 153 'progressive piano pieces' of Mikrokosmos by Bla Bartk are a milestone in piano literature. As with other pedagogical
collections, from Bach's Clavierbchlein to Gyrgy Kurtg's Jtkok (Games) (which indeed owes its existence to that of the
Bartk), it is not only an incitement to learning on the part of the willing student, but also an encapsulation of the sound-world that
goes to make up its composer's mature idiom.
Taken as a whole, Mikrokosmos is Bartk's largest project and one that evolved intermittently over a lengthy period. Its origins go
back to the Piano Method that the composer worked on with Sndor Reschofsky in 1913, to which Bartk contributed some 48
pieces, eighteen of which he extracted to form The First Term at the Piano. It was the inclination to devise a piano method of his
own, coupled with a number of sketches left over from his immersion in piano composition during 1926, the year that saw the
Piano Sonata, the suite Out of Doors, the Nine Little Piano Pieces and the First Piano Concerto, that was the catalyst for this
collection. Even then, work continued fitfully, mainly during 1932-39, while the emergence of many pieces from the first three
volumes relatively late on suggests that the concept of a cycle of gradually increasing difficulty was long pursued in theory rather
than in practice.
Before the overall sequence had been finalised, Bartk was already playing selected numbers in concert, recording two pieces in
1937, and 32 of them in 1940, on both these occasions for C olumbia. Even at the stage of negotiation with his publisher, he was
still thinking in terms of a five-volume sequence, only latterly separating out those pieces intended for the first book into two
separate volumes. It is also worth noting here that the complete collection was never intended for public performance: in
particular, the first four volumes have a more or less didactic purpose, making them impracticable in this context. Even when
presented as a recorded cycle, the purpose of some transposed and simplified versions can only really be demonstrated by the
score, though the inclusion of either their two-piano or voice-and-piano forms (though not, in this recorded edition, for harpsichord)
widens the remit of a project whose musical essence was never intended to be set in stone.
As to the titles of the individual pieces, Bartk drew on a wide range of sources, ranging from specifically musical terms and also
technical procedures, via indications of regional provenance and folk derivation, to descriptions of a more or even wholly
descriptive nature. Numerous composers, past and contemporary, are referred to over the cycle's course, the connections of which
to major works Bartk wrote in this period make Mikrokosmos a guide to its composer's world like no other.

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Book 1 starts very much at the beginning, as Bartk had done with his nine-year-old son Peter during 1933. Opening with the
closely-related Six Unison Melodies (1-6), it moves gradually and, above all, methodically through various technical studies, yet
includes self-sufficient numbers such as the austere Second Imitation and Inversion (25), the respectively plaintive and chaste
miniatures In Dorian Mode (32) and In Phrygian Mode (34), and, above all, the Bachian poise of Chorale (35).
Book 2 widens the scope by including further modal pieces and also by investigating more complex, if still relatively elementary,
technical issues. Notable among its content are the thoughtful Accompaniment in Broken Triads (42), the impressionistic Waves
(51), the evocative remoteness of In Oriental Style (58), the closely intertwined melody and accompaniment of Pentatonic Melody
(61), and, finally, the division between the hands of these components in Melody Divided (66).
Book 3 opens out the technical and associative process appreciably. Numerous pieces now take on the status of fully-fledged
compositions. Among these are the lucidly thoughtful Melody against Double Notes (70), appropriately flowing and inward-looking
offerings of Hommage J. S. B. (79) and Hommage R. Sch (80), the elegant intricacy of Variations (87), the contrapuntal lucidity
of Duet for Pipes (88), and, finally, the suggestive mood-piece that is Once Upon a Time (94).
Book 4 further places the emphasis on artistic as opposed to didactic writing, witness the eloquence of Notturno (97). The
playfulness of Harmonics (102), the strange juxtaposition of ideas in Melody in the Mist (107), the haunting and highly idiomatic
interplay of register and texture in From the Island of Bali (109), the concise tone-poem that is Intermezzo (111), and the
plangency of Song (116): all are of the highest rank in Bartk's or any other composer's piano output.
Book 5 takes one into the realm of fully autonomous composition and, like its successor in the cycle, can be listened to and
appreciated as a through-composed whole. Thus from the brusque energy of Chords Together and in Opposition (122), it proceeds
through such numbers as the gracefully undulating motion of Boating (125), the robust energy of Stamping Dance (128), and the
scenic evocation of Village Joke (130), via a series of exacting yet always pleasurable technical studies, to an exhilarating final
group comprising the ricocheting chords of Perpetuum mobile (135), the Debussian process that is respectfully but wryly
acknowledged in Whole-tone Scales (136), the imaginative use to which the synchronization of the hands is deployed in Unison
(137), the timeless study in folk-music inflections that is Bagpipe Music (138) and, finally, the insouciance of Jack-in-the-Box (139),
a vibrant conclusion to a wonderfully sustained sequence.
Book 6 is the culmination of the cycle both in its technical challenges and in its musical sophistication. From the skittering manner
of Free Variation (140), it then proceeds to the lively repartee of Subject and Reflection (141), the quizzical depiction that is From
the Diary of a Fly (142), and unforced integration of gesture and motion of Divided Arpeggios (143). An expressive apex is reached
in Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths (144), the most extended number of the collection, a powerfully-sustained study in emotion and
atmosphere whose impact is belied by its technical description. Moving through the insistently imitative textures of Chromatic
Invention 3 (145), the joyous motoric rhythms of Ostinato (146) and implacable resolve of March (147), the cycle concludes with
Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (148-153), pieces that judiciously complement each other in manner and content, and which
round-off the whole work to tellingly musical effect.
When asked, near the end of his life, about the meaning of his chosen title, Bartk explained that "Mikrokosmos may be

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interpreted as a series of pieces in many different styles, representing a small world. Or it may be interpreted as 'world of the little
ones, the children'". There can be little doubt that, in terms both as an educational resource and also as a compendium of musical
possibilities, Mikrokosmos represents an achievement that has few equals in the history of Western culture.
Richard Whitehouse

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