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Bartok: Mikrokosmos (complete)
Jeno Jando, Piano
Tamara Takacs, Mezzo-Soprano, Balazs Szokolay (Piano 2)
Naxos (2-CD set)

Bartok has always been one of my favorite composers. He was very neglected during his lifetime, was terribly affected by the Second World War (he recognized the dangers of fascism very early on) and lived in near poverty not far from what is now Lincoln Center. Besides being a master composer, Bartok was a formidable pianist (his Etudes are exceptionally difficult to perform), and contributed a lot to the piano repertoire.

In many ways, his crowning achievement in the solo piano realm was the six books of Mikrokosmos. The first two books were written for his son, Peter, and the entire work was intended as a gradual piano method, beginning easy and getting progressively harder. In reality, Mikrokosmos is anything but Czerny exercises. It represents a true mastery of the piano and of composition, period. By the time one gets to Book 6, things are much more complex to perform; indeed, Peter Bartok claimed that the last books were beyond his technique. In addition to exploring fundamental elements of piano technique, many of the pieces make references to other composer’s styles, and also explore specific intervals and rhythms.

Why is a piece that is on the order of 70+ years old (the first pieces were composed in 1926) of interest to a new music site? Because Mikrokosmos is still uncharted territory for some, and like Henry Cowell, Bartok at times ventured into new territory and left a permanent mark on the literature. Consider the last six pieces of Book 6 (the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm); they represent significant advances in rhythm, at least within the piano literature, along with some of the best music Bartok wrote. The fourth Dance I’ve always found reminiscent of jazz, yet one rarely thinks of Bartok in the context of jazz (even though he did write Contrasts for Benny Goodman). In many ways, Mikrokosmos can be seen as a compendium of the composer’s techniques. While not as abstract as the displaced octaves and references to serialism one finds in the two violin sonatas and the Etudes, there is still a lot of the avant-garde Bartok within the six Books of Mikrokosmos.

While the more interesting music perhaps lies within the last three Books, there is much to enjoy in the easier Books 1-3. What I did not know before is that some of the pieces were also scored for voice with piano, or duo pianos. I was glad to see that this album preserves that, including Tamara Takacs (mezzo-soprano) and Balazs Szokolay as a second pianist for a few of the pieces.

I still have several LPs with Bartok himself playing many of the pieces from Mikrokosmos, and that remains what I consider the “gold standard.” I also confess a prejudice, in that I generally have found very few performers who were not of Hungarian background who could do justice to Bartok. The Emerson Quartet is one of these, for sure, as was David Oistrakh. But definitive performers such as Gyorgy Sandor, the Takacs Quartet and Joseph Szigeti are hard to find outside of Budapest.

I would say that Jeno Jando does an exemplary job at performing and interpreting Mikrokosmos. This recording compares very favorably with the recordings I’ve heard of the composer performing excerpts from the latter Books, and I’ve really come to like and appreciate Jando’s recording. This is an exceptional release, one that every new music aficionado should have, and I would love to hear the pianist interpret a lot more of Bartok’s music (I do know his excellent recording of the violin sonatas, where he accompanies Gyorgy Pauk).

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