Psappha Ensemble Live at The Stoller Hall (Manchester, UK)
27 September 2018http://Psappha.com
Paul Janes & Benjamin Powell - pianos
Tim Williams & Oliver Patrick - percussion
I. Assai lento—Allegro molto II. Lento, ma non troppo III. Allegro non troppo
Having voluntarily detached himself from musical life in Germany as soon as the Nazis took over, in 1933, Bartók appreciated the opportunities he had in Switzerland, thanks to Paul Sacher, for whom he composed three works in 1936-9: the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the Divertimento for strings and, in between, this Sonata for two pianos and percussion.
“For some years now,” he wrote at the time of the première, “I have been planning to compose a work for piano and percussion.” Indeed, he had intensified the percussive character of the piano in his 1926 solo sonata and later pieces, and had brought the instrument up close to the percussion section in the two piano concertos he had written so far. “Slowly, however,” he went on, “I have become convinced that one piano does not sufficiently balance the frequently very sharp sounds of the percussion.” So he had doubled the piano presence, and made sure that the percussionists do not overwhelm their colleagues: for the most part they provide accenting, background, punctuation and rhythmic crossfire rather than primary thematic material, the chief exception coming in the finale, whose rondo theme belongs to the xylophone.
Besides the experience of the medium he had gained through earlier works, he had a model in the work of Stravinsky’s he probably admired most of all: Les Noces, for voices accompanied by an orchestra of four pianos and percussion. Both that score and his Sonata call for xylophone and timpani, capable of connecting with the high and low registers of the piano. Both, too, ask for a similarly classical array of untuned instruments, the Sonata adding a tam tam to Stravinsky’s drums, cymbals and triangle. The main difference is that Bartók has no use for the bell and crotales that resonate through the end of Les Noces – though he certainly does emulate Stravinsky in the clarity, attack and élan of his writing for multiple keyboards.
The first movement, Bartók’s longest sonata structure, embraces a great deal of variety within an almost unchanging 9/8 time signature, which the three subjects press at different rates and in different metres. Where the first is marked by a propulsive pattern of three crotchets followed by three quavers at an allegro molto, the second is rather slower and divides the bar into irregular and changingly ordered units of 4+2+3 quavers, and the third sets out from leaping sixths to chase off in iambic short-long figures. In the recapitulation, highly varied, the second theme comes back in inversion, followed by the third in a substantial fugal passage and then the first in a short coda.
There follows a slow movement with the nocturnal atmosphere of the adagio in the Music for Strings, having a central section much occupied with staccato quintuplets and marked molto espr. la melodia – though this ‘melodia’ turns out to be little more than a chromatic scale, falling and rising. Not so the principal theme of the finale, which is in the acoustic scale on C (C-D-E-F♯-G-A-B♭-C), Bartók’s tonality of exuberance and joy.
Programme note copyright Paul Griffiths