Brahms – Eight Piano Pieces, op.76
Bartók – Out of Doors, BB 89
Bartók – Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csík, BB 45b
Bartók – Mikrokosmos, BB 105, Book VI: Six Dances in Bulgarian rhythm
Bartók – Six Rumanian Folk Dances, BB 68
Brahms – Ten Hungarian Dances, WoO 1
Cédric Tiberghien (piano)
This was a fascinating programme, conceived both as a prelude to the Wigmore Hall’s ‘Bartók Day’ (20 September) and an examination of the differing approaches to ‘folk music’ by Brahms and Bartók. I use inverted commas, since Brahms’s material was based upon gypsy music and often ‘composed’ rather than traditional, although Brahms was largely unaware of this. Bartók on the other hand experienced an epiphany in 1904, hearing a Transylvanian folksong sung by a nurse-maid. What he and many others – including Brahms – had previously thought to be Hungarian folk music was indeed nothing of the kind. Bartók would devote a considerable part of his subsequent career to study of the ‘real thing’, however problematic that idea might be.
Brahms’s Op.76 pieces stand somewhat obliquely to this theme. There are some gypsy rhythms, for instance during the Capriccio in B minor, but for the most part it is better simply to consider this group as a valid introductory set in its own right. (And in retrospect, some pre-emptive respite from folksong, composed or traditional, was maybe not unwelcome.) Cédric Tiberghien proved himself a veritable lion of the keyboard, presenting a Brahms of high Romanticism rather than a progenitor of the Second Viennese School. This is to some extent a false opposition, since an interpretation can perfectly well encompass both of these views and indeed others, and there was certainly a strong sense of motivic development, heightened by telling cross rhythms, in the opening, F sharp minor Capriccio. That said, the general thrust stood closer to Chopin – this is not, after all, late Brahms – and even at times to Liszt, in spite of Brahms’s distaste for that composer. The first piece announced an echt-Brahmsian sonority and sentiment, married to superbly natural flexible tempi, a characteristic that persisted throughout the set, even when, as in the final, C major Capriccio, I wondered whether the Romanticism was a little overdone and we veered dangerously close not only to Chopin but even to Rachmaninov. I mean this purely in terms of sonority, for there was nothing flashy about Tiberghien’s performance; it was simply abundant in passion. Virtuosity was readily deployed, for instance in the C sharp minor Capriccio, but always at the service of the music. Helpful in this respect was a strong underlying rhythmic impulse, apparent throughout. So was a great skill for voicing, without ever tending towards sub-Horowitz narcissism. I was very much taken with the B flat major Intermezzo, in which Tiberghien captured perfectly its unassuming though far from inconsequential nature. It was only really in the sixth piece, the A major Intermezzo, that a refreshingly Schumannesque – Liszt might have said ‘Leipzigerisch’ – inheritance shone though, not least in its quizzical opening and thereafter in the involved thematic development, though once again the performance remained outwardly impassioned too.
Bartók’s Out of doors suite rounded off the first half. I may only have had incidental reservations concerning the Brahms but here I had none whatsoever. From the opening bars of With drums and pipes, with their stomping percussive chords, this was utterly characteristic Bartók – from both composer and pianist. The Barcarolla was splendidly insistent and again utterly attuned to the composer’s sound world. That insistence carried through into Musettes, accompanied by a pianist’s sonorous delight in Bartók’s drones. In The night’s music – a title so prophetic for much later Bartók – one could almost see the insects of the night, so vividly did Tiberghien portray them. Yet his reading was certainly not merely colouristic; there was always clear direction, married to razor-sharp rhythmic definition. It made me want to hear Tiberghien’s Debussy. In The chase we were treated to a climactic, almost Lisztian abandon: Mazeppa or Mephisto, or perhaps both. Tiberghien unleashed breathtaking virtuosity, which enabled great textural clarity without ever sounding clinical. It is no exaggeration to say that he reminded me here of Maurizio Pollini.
After the interval, the opening group of three short sets displayed three different varieties of Bartók’s inspiration and composition: straightforward setting of folksong material, compositional inspiration from folksong rhythm – in this case of the Bulgarian ‘additive’ variety – and elaboration of existing material. In the short Three Hungarian folk songs from Csík, Tiberghien resisted any temptation to over-play these simple folksong settings. There was here a strong, direct simplicity, married to an exquisite touch. The melancholy of the first and second songs shone through but they were never sentimentalised. These songs were simply and rightly presented rather than ‘interpreted’. The Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos, that astonishing set of teaching material – yet think of Bach, as Bartók so often did – were by contrast most definitely ‘composed’ and therefore ‘performed’. Tiberghien nevertheless never overdid the ‘interpretation’; his achievement was such that this once again sounded simply as Bartók. He employed a telling yet natural rubato allied to tight rhythmic command: alive to the twists and turns of Bartók’s dances but never ‘quirky’ for the sake of it. Quickfire repeated notes gave ample and apposite opportunity to utilise rather than merely to display his virtuosity. The ever-popular – in various guises – Six Rumanian Folk Dances were infectiously strident where necessary but were equally characterised by a wonderful delicacy. ‘Eastern’ sounds were full of promise and not without a hint or two of danger. Repetition was exciting rather then tedious, as can sometimes be the case with inherently anti-developmental folksong. But it was above all the melancholy lyricism that will linger for me.
From the outset of the solo version of the Ten Hungarian Dances, it was clear that we had returned to Brahms: the highly Romantic Brahms we had earlier, but nevertheless still Brahms. The German composer’s darkness and charm were equally present. And the difference between Bartók’s Hungarian material and Brahms’s gypsy music was clear. Impassioned nostalgia might be a good way to characterise the openings of the second and fourth dances. In the latter we heard the cimbalom as clearly as we had heard the insects of the night in Out of doors. The syncopations of the third dance were projected with great dramatic flair. If there were occasional hints of rhythmic hardening, as in the fourth, and of matter-of factness, as in the fifth, these should not be exaggerated; they were probably only noticeable because the Bartók performances had been so utterly remarkable. And Tiberghien elsewhere, for instance in the seventh dance, showed that he was quite able to adopt a characteristic gypsy freedom of tempo. The Brahms works, then, were very good, but Tiberghien’s Bartók was quite outstanding, indeed faultless. And yet he surpassed himself in terms of Brahms by providing as an encore a haunting E major waltz (no.2) from the Op.39 set. We were left wanting more – which is just as it should be.