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Minor Miracle

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
01/31/2001 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasia in C Minor
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 32 in C Minor
Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody # 5; Ave Maria
Bela Bartok: Allegro Barbaro; Sonata (1926)

Zoltan Kocsis (piano)

To fully understand the music of Bela Bartok, one needs to have heard him play the piano. Bartok treated his instrument as what it actually was: a member of the percussion section. He mercilessly pounded away and expressed the most atavistic of emotions in his positively barbaric style. A series of home recordings and tapes exists which allows the listener to experience the primitive pianism of the composer and his student/wife Ditta Pasztory and listening to these private sessions is extremely revelatory not just about the Bartoks (even their Mozart is percussive) but about the totality of music in the first half of the twentieth century and its role in the psychology and the sociology of the period. Bartok always went for the most elemental effect, orchestrating often with the bass drum preferred over the timpani, the pitchless thud preferable in its natural sound to the more sophisticated but less satisfying “respectable” note. It seems that only Hungarians really can get at the heart of this music and so the classic performances of Gyorgy Sandor, Fritz Reiner, Antal Dorati, George Solti and, in our own day, Andras Schiff always seem more authentic than noble efforts of foreigners (in fact the greatest Bartok performer alive today, Kyung-Wha Chung, learned her craft from the composer’s best friend and leading exponent Joseph Szigeti). Zoltan Kocsis serves up his Magyar heritage with large portions of primeval athleticism and presented two of the juiciest chunks of raw meat in the Bartok repertoire last evening at the 92nd St. Y. As if the original score wasn’t primal enough, Kocsis offered the solo piano version of the material incorporated into the Piano Concerto # 1, stripping away the niceties of instrumentation and getting down (like Ravel) to the black and white of the Urtext.

The first half of the program was very well thought out. With the sound of the Mahler 6 still in my ear from Sunday’s Dresden concert, I was particularly struck by the juxtaposition of two profoundly angst-ridden works in the same key (Mahler’s A Minor for the first two movements of his symphony leaves the listener chilled in a similar manner). Kocsis hardly even acknowledged the applause after the Mozart, launching doggedly into the swirling waters of the Beethoven without shedding any of the desperation of the previous work and rowing us all on a journey down the river Styx into a maelstrom of now familiar but disquieting C Minor. Exhibiting fierce strength throughout, Kocsis felt confident enough to stretch his “Rubinstein reach”, occasionally missing notes in the sonata but more than making up for any inaccuracies with superb phrasing and febrile emotionalism. I could imagine Bartok wailing away in a similar manner and feared for the very construction of the powerful Steinway. The last of the Beethoven 32 is a complex narrative, open to many different styles of interpretation. Zoltan Kocsis confronts it head on.

After a noble reading of the “heroic” Liszt rhapsody, this dramatically demonstrative artist unveiled a ravishingly intense performance of the Ave Maria. I would have been suitably overwhelmed if the recital had ended at this point. The night, however, belonged to Bartok and his fellow Hungarian’s nimble and lightning-like traversal of the wild Allegro was stupefying in its sheer raw power. I find myself running out of superlatives, so let me tell you a little about the final piece. Built on extremely jarring minor seconds, the only sonata that this wizard of the keyboard wrote for his solo instrument is the outcry of a wounded animal and spells the death of “business as usual” in twentieth century pianism. Even Anton Webern, a personal friend and great admirer of Bartok, could not listen to this music for he feared that it was too dissonant. Additionally, the hammered phrases layer upon each other at such a prestissimo that it seems at first glance a total impossibility to play without degenerating into chaotic cacophony. And yet this burly Magyar lion not only performed it flawlessly, but imbued this anarchic essay with a surprising degree of coherence. I heard for the first time the structure of the piece and began to think of it not so much as revolutionary but rather as evolutionary. The drone of the minor second conjured up images of the preternatural world of a Europe beset with wolves and Huns, every minute a nervous struggle for animal survival. I was reminded of why I chose to devote my life to music in the first place. This was a spectacular performance.

Amazingly enough, Kocsis still had energy for encores. His choice of the Bartok arrangement of Hungarian folksongs revealed yet another side of the complicated harmonic mind of this greatest of ethnomusicologists. Here there is no major or minor, rather a world of pentachords and, for lack of a more distinct Western equivalent, modal intervallic relationships. To listen to Bartok is to realize that we as classical devotees dwell in only one small corner of the musical universe. There is so much else to explore. The Y will be presenting two concerts and symposia about the music of the Gypsies in April and one of them will concentrate on Hungary. This evening by the superb Mr. Kocsis is a fine way to whet the potential attendees’ collective appetites.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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