[Sânnicolau Mare], 25 March 1881 – d. New York, 26 September 1945)
Andante (p. 5) – (accelerando al) Allegro (p. 14) – Meno mosso (p. 29) – Allegro molto (p. 31)
II Vivace scherzando (p. 49) – Moderato (p. 64) – Vivace scherzando (p. 68) – Vivo (p. 69) – Moderato (p. 82) –
Vivace (p. 84) – Vivace scherzando (p. 85)
III Adagio (p. 100) – Adagio molto (p. 102) – Meno adagio, maestoso (p. 107) – Adagio molto (p. 109) –
Maestoso (p. 111) – Adagio molto (p. 121) – Agitato – Maestoso (p. 129) –
IV Poco a poco più vivace (p. 133) – Vivace (p. 135) – Vivace molto (p. 137) – Moderato (p. 142) – Vivace molto (p. 144) – Vivo (p. 146) – Vivace (p. 150) – Poco a poco più agitato (p. 155) – Maestoso (meno vivo) (p. 158) – A tempo più vivo (p. 162)- Presto (p. 164) – Meno mosso – Moderato (p. 167) – Prestissimo (p. 168) – Ritardando (p. 172)
Many experts and music-lovers have still not taken notice of the fact that in 1903-04 Béla Bartók wrote a large-scale piano quintet (indeed, it is his longest piece of chamber music altogether) which, in substance and impact, fully deserves to be among the most frequently played works in its genre. How did it happen that such a work could vanish utterly for almost half a century and lead a wallflower existence thereafter, despite the efforts even of prominent non-Hungarian musicians? In the main, the reason has to do with its retroactive dismissal by the composer himself and the superficial adoption and interpretation of that dismissal by his exegetes. Amazingly, it is still claimed in all seriousness that the quintet labors under the influence of Brahms and betrays unmistakable hallmarks of Richard Strauss. Of course it has far closer ties to tradition than, at the latest, the Second Orchestral Suite of 1905-07 (op. 4). It should be emphasized, however, that Bartók began his deep study of Liszt only after the Piano Quintet was finished. This suggests that the work’s cyclic form (the return of the opening movement’s main theme in the finale) reflects above all the extremely successful Piano Quintet op. 1 by Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960), a work composed in 1895, published by Doblinger of Vienna in 1902, and regarded in Hungary virtually as the ne plus ultra of its genre. (We can only lament the loss Bartók’s first piano quintet in C major, composed in 1897, two years after Dohnányi’s stunningly successful work and six years before the present quintet, while he was still studying with Hans Koessler [1853-1926].) This is, however, practically the only parallel between the two quintets by two Hungarian masters from the same generation: Dohnányi’s work is fully beholden to the German tradition (with a Slavo-Hungarian tinge), whereas Bartók’s obviously strikes out on a fresh untrodden path, even if he was still searching for his own personal idiom. It is a common mistake to measure the quality of a work by what came after it, and it is high time that Bartók’s Piano Quintet be viewed entirely from the historical perspective of what his predecessors created before it.
Bartók himself, in his autobiographical sketch of 1921, describes the circumstances under which the Piano Quintet came into existence. He notes that his discovery of Richard Strauss’s symphonic poems freed him from a creative crisis and allowed him to resume composing. Compounding this was the “nationalist movement” in the arts, which motivated him to try to create “something typically Hungarian” and caused him to turn “towards what was then regarded as Hungarian folk music”: “It was under these various influences that I composed in 1903 a symphonic poem titled Kossuth, that was immediately accepted for performance by János [Hans] Richter, in Manchester (in February, 1904). A violin sonata and a piano quintet were also created around these times. These three works are still unpublished as of today. We may categorize into this period the Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (Opus 1), composed in 1904 […], as well as the first Suite for Large Orchestra of 1905.”
Bartók goes on to stress that he did not find his own idiom until his opus 4.
The first Bartók work to be posthumously accorded lasting significance – it has been heard in concert time and again in recent decades and released on many commercial recordings – is his symphonic poem Kossuth. At roughly the same time he also wrote a Marche funèbre for solo piano and four songs with piano accompaniment which, however, are unfortunately lost. Then came the great four-movement Piano Quintet, boldly and resolutely drawing on a genre that could already boast of immortal masterpieces by Schumann, Brahms, Franck, and Dvořák. It received its première in Vienna on 21 November 1904, played by the Prill Quartet headed by Carl Prill (1864-1931) with the composer at the piano. He then submitted the piece to the Anton Rubinstein Competition in Paris, along with his freshly completed Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (op. 1), then still referred to as Konzertstück. He also took part in the competition as a pianist, in which capacity he won the second prize behind Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969), a pianist he held in high esteem. But he was grievously disappointed by the reception given to his own compositions: the Quintet was rejected in advance as too difficult to rehearse. In its place he submitted his E-minor Violin Sonata of 1903, which he played with Lev Zeitlin (1884-1930). The Rhapsody, performed by Bartók himself with the Lamoureux Orchestra under Camille Chevillard (1859-1923), did not win a prize; indeed, no composition prize was awarded at all. The composer who came off best was an Italian named Attilio Brugnoli (1880-1937), whose works, Bartók informed his mother in disgust, were “completely worthless eclectic conglomerations. The scandalous thing is that the jury couldn’t see how much better my works are.”
Although Bartók, by his own admission, had not yet found his own style in the Piano Quintet, the piece remained dear to his heart. He played it again in 1910, subjected it to revision in 1920, and performed it in Budapest on 7 January 1921. This latter performance, the third one with the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet headed by Imre Waldbauer (1892-1952), only left the composer upset and furious when the audience preferred it to his later music, which he considered more timely. It has been suggested that this was the primary reason why he withdrew the Quintet altogether and never mentioned it again. For a long time the experts, drawing on statements by Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and Bartók’s first wife Márta Ziegler (1893-1967), believed that he had destroyed the piece. But in 1963 the leading Bartók scholar Denijs Dille (1904-2005) discovered the score and parts of the revised version in Bartók’s Hungarian papers and prepared the first edition, completing one minor passage (a few bars doubling the right hand with lower octaves) with Kodály’s consent. His edition was duly published by Editio Musica, Budapest, in 1970. Three years later Bartók’s Piano Quintet was again performed in public, this time in New York and Washington, only to be roundly rejected by the critics. Old prejudices die hard even when there is nothing serious to back them up. The present publication faithfully reproduces Dille’s first edition.
Translation: Bradford Robinson