Béla Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion
Composed for nine instruments (2x pianos, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, tam-tam and xylophone), Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion certainly packs a punch. Written in 1937 and premiered in 1938 by Bartók and his second wife Ditta on piano and percussionists Fritz Schiesser and Philipp Rühig, the sonata was received very well by critics and audiences. The piece received its US premiere in 1940, with Ditta also playing one of the piano parts in New York City’s Town Hall. Since its inception, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion is among Bartók’s most-performed works today, even with the large set-up.
On the score Bartók has been very precise about how the layout of the ensemble should look and is also very specific on the percussion parts as to what kind of sticks to use and what parts of the instruments to strike. Due to Bartók’s precision, the outcome is a fully-realised and intricate chamber work.
Movement I – Assai lento – Allegro Molto
The slow and atmospheric opening to this movement is decorated with percussion swells that interrupt the delicate pianos. The structure is in sonata form, with this long introduction leading into an exposition section. For a majority of this movement the music is in 9/8 time which gives a slightly uncomfortable feeling throughout. As the exposition bursts into action, the pianos rush off in-sync as the percussion accompanies with drum rhythms or melody affectations. There is a real ebb and flow of energy in this movement, with Bartók experimenting with rhythm and textures to create rich swells of music and also atmospheric passages.
The powerful synergy between the pianos radiates into the percussion as the two sections work harmoniously through the more bombastic sections. The music is dramatic and intense and that is certainly one of the appeals of the work. As the coda section begins the pianos race off with a reprise of a fully-realised opening theme. The jaunty angular melodies come to a sudden end as the ensemble finishes on a final beat together.
Movement II – Lento, ma non troppo
The ternary form middle movement showcases Bartók’s famous ‘night music’ idiom which he used in many multi-movement works. The idiom is basically a technique of producing mysterious dissonances as a backdrop to lone melodies. This is exactly what happens in this movement as one piano leans on the dissonances and the other plays a simple lone melody. The percussion adds cymbal scrapes and other sounds throughout, but this movement is really about the pianos. As the dissonances grow the music swells into the climax of the movement, but quickly comes back down before rumbles of the next movement begin.
Movement III – Allegro non troppo
The finale bursts into action with a rondo-like dance. The pianos and xylophone take the melodic lead, as the drums take a more accompaniment role. The bombastic energy in this movement is unchallenged by the previous movements and shows Bartók’s more playful style of writing. Led by melody rather than texture, the finale is an exciting display of musicianship. With the energy presented in this movement it might be a surprise that the ending is extremely quiet and finishes with a duet between the snare drum and cymbal.
Ⓒ Alex Burns