American Record Guide
A gigantic pianistic marathon.
Music & Vision, London UK
June de Toth plays Bartók piano music
'... a magisterial achievement.'
On these CDs we have a judicious mix of crash-bang Bartók and delectable offerings lasting sometimes less than a minute.
It should be said at once that June de Toth is equally effective when lacerating or enchanting us. Her tonal range is impressive, and she accomplishes the rich variety of the exigent Bartók with a sure touch, percussive and unyielding where required, subtle and indeed moving in the tiniest folk-tune miniature. It is a magisterial achievement. The 1926 piano sonata comes near the beginning of her scheme, and its grinding harshness is what most might expect from Bartók at the keyboard [listen -- CD1 track 8, 3:22-4:44]. For the rest, it is perhaps instructive to follow a chronological rather than Tothian sequence.
This is certainly not the complete Bartók piano music. Apart from a multitude of early works since lost, many pieces remain unpublished; but this comprises a representative selection. It was Bartók's 1905 meeting with Kodály that first directed him towards the systematic collection of folk tunes from Hungary and neighbouring countries. Two years later he started their publication, and in 1908-10 came Seven Sketches, with the beguiling 'See Saw, Dickory Daw' as No 2, playful enough to intrigue and entertain any child [listen -- CD1 track 2, 0:00-0:49]. It happens also to be the briefest piece in the whole recital.
Bartók's humour is equally apparent in the second of the Fourteen Bagatelles, in which the keyboard writing is adroit and testing [listen -- CD3 track 18, 0:00-0:47]. But for me the core of the whole collection, in which Bartók achieves a Schumannesque imagination, coupled with a gnomic grace and harmonic simplicity that constantly enthrals, are the two For Children sets (1908-9). They contain 42 Hungarian folk songs and 43 Slovakian. Each is a miracle of craftsmanship, such as 'My little graceful girl' in the first set [listen -- CD2 track 21, 0:00-1:21]. But my favourites are the Slovakian, where the plangent harmonies and simple cadences tug at the heart. Choice is impossible, but the 'Rogue's Song' might win, if only because I like rogues [listen -- CD4 track 7, 0:00-1:01].
Romanian carols for Christmas were arranged in 1915. Again choice is difficult, but the first Andante can do duty for the rest [listen -- CD4 track 51, 0:00-0:48]. From the same bitter war year comes more Romanian music, and notably a piece that has attracted many subsequent arrangements. This is the bewitching 'Dance with Sticks' from Transylvania [listen -- CD3 track 1, 0:00-1:05]. It is perhaps necessary to face if not embrace the post-war legacy, and end with a gruelling piece from 1926. 'The Chase' from the Out of Doors set is preceded by Bartók at his most mysteriously evocative in 'The Night's Music' (how one longs for orchestral colours); but now we must hurtle relentlessly on to the kill and the end of de Toth's revelatory success [listen -- CD5 track 27, 0:00-1:02].
Green Man Review
A composer's works for solo piano are in many ways equivalent to a painter's drawings: they can range from sketches to major finished works, and allow us to explore an artist's thinking in an intimate format -- a chance, quite often, to be "present at the creation." The solo piano works of Bela Bartok are no exception. This collection, performed by Hungarian-born pianist June de Toth, is the first part of a complete issue of Bartok's solo piano works (Vols. VI and VII, issued as a separate boxed set, contains the complete Mikrokosmos).
Bartok's career is very nearly a case study in the history of music in the twentieth century. He was one of the generation of composers who broke away from the romanticism of Mahler to search in new directions for sounds, structures, and concepts. Like Debussy and many others, he experimented with the pentatonic scale (although Debussy turned to the East for examples, while Bartok found his in the traditional Gypsy tunes of Hungary) and new forms, bringing these ideas back to breathe new life into old forms while maintaining his strong emphasis on the new.
This collection spans a wide range and contains works that are by turns dazzling, thoughtful, and sometimes exhausting. The Sonata 1926 is an extraordinary work, reputedly as demanding for soloists as the Liszt Sonata in B minor. It is certainly challenging to the listener, although de Toth gives no sense of strain, and indeed, sets the tone for her performance throughout: she is intelligent enough not to intrude on the music. The group "For Children (42 Hungarian Folk Songs)", on the other hand, really are children's songs -- one recognizes some of the melodies (another testament to the universality of children), transmitted in sophisticated but fairly transparent settings . The "Six Easy Piano Pieces" in Vol. III take us back to Bartok the modernist, from the very beginning showing the kind of spare, strong structure that makes his music so appealing.
That is one of the most engaging aspects of this collection: it is a detailed portrait of a composer who, like many others in the twentieth century, balanced an uncompromising modernism with a passionate devotion to traditional music, not only that of his native Hungary but of other parts of Eastern Europe as well. (One can find many like-minded artists in this period: Thomson, Copland and Ives in the United States; Villa-Lobos in Brazil; Vaughan Williams -- although much more a romantic than a modernist was equally devoted to English folk music -- and Bartok's fellow Hungarians, Zoltan Kodaly; and Antonin Dvorak, whom we may consider a forerunner, who not only treasured the songs of his native Bohemia, but built a complete symphony out of traditional American music.) In Bartok's hands, it all becomes an adventure in which we, as the audience, can hardly wait to find out what he will do next.
June de Toth renders a bravura performance, without the noise one usually associates with that word: her renditions are intelligent, sensitive, and allow the music to speak for itself. A good example is the "Fourteen Bagatelles" from Vol. III, in which she does not "interpret" so much as follow the music where it leads, through sometimes dizzying changes in mood, with a range of expression that is subtle, but really quite astonishing. In fact, her approach throughout avoids the kind of pyrotechnics that are all too often of great appeal to soloists, and that sometimes get in the way, but she nevertheless has a firm grasp and a deep understanding of the music, allowing Bartok to shine through without hindrance.
All told, this is a breathtaking set. (Although honesty bids me say that five volumes -- almost five and a half hours -- is perhaps carrying devotion too far.) One commentator has called it "an ideal introduction to Bartok's piano music," which I think understates the case: this is, with the two final volumes, Bartok's piano music. I think any single volume makes an excellent introduction to the music of the twentieth century.
Robert M. Tilendis
This is a fascinating survey of a large part of Bartók’s mature music for the piano by a Hungarian-American pianist who has achieved a high reputation in this repertoire. Reading Eroica’s marketing information; I was impressed by the fact that de Toth was the only American to have participated in the festival in Budapest commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bartók’s death...
One could very roughly categorize the music on these five CDs as: a) The better known or bigger works: Sonatina, Sonata, Out of Doors. b) Short but ambitious pieces in Bartók’s trenchant idiom; for example, the Seven Sketches, the Three Burlesques and the Allegro Barbaro. c) The collections of short pieces, such as those based on East European folk tunes.
Unless you are a Bartók specialist, there will be a lot of music in this collection that will be new to you!
It is immediately obvious that June de Toth is well up to the task of projecting the music on all points on the spectrum. At the dynamic end, the toccata-like finale of the Sonata from 1926 has all the percussive brilliance required, tempered with a refined musicality. The liner notes mention her interpretative angle as ‘lyrical and romantic’ which seems to me to work very well both in moderating the apparent brutality of the more overtly aggressive music and in shaping the many delightful little pieces.
As for the collections, it was a real voyage of discovery to listen to a whole sequence in one sitting, something I can’t imagine doing again, at least for the 42 Hungarian Folk Songs! Surely a recording like this is for dipping into and savouring from time to time and, if one is a pianist, to discover new and interesting material for exploration. There are many lovely miniatures here which, while they will never be well known, present the enquiring piano-lover with a treasure trove of riches. I will certainly be checking out the Bartók section on my next visit to Chappells!
To take one example, the Nine Little Piano Pieces make a fascinating set with two-part inventions - a cross between Bach and Debussy – mixed with witty and slightly bizarre genre pieces. Reordered with the contrapuntal pieces interspersed, the set would form the modern equivalent of a Couperin ordre.
In some ways, the most interesting pieces on the set are those that are less well known than, say, the Sonata but which exhibit all the hallmarks of Bartók’s style into which all his disparate influences – Liszt, Debussy, folk-music – were completely assimilated. For example, the Two Elegies are powerful, intense pieces, very pianistic in a Lisztian way. The Burlesques would also make strong recital pieces for the virtuoso pianist. June de Toth projects both these sets in a completely convincing manner.
... A lot of the music in this collection has a domestic flavour for which this recorded ambience is entirely appropriate.
In summary, I thoroughly recommend this set. The performances are well thought out and meticulously prepared. There are lively and sensitive versions of the ‘big’ works and caring accounts of the many beautiful little pieces that in some way are really the essence of Bartók.
American Record Guide
In her exhaustive survey of his solo piano works, June de Toth offers thoughtful and often eloquent readings that reject both hysteria and the kind of kamikaze approach of so many young piano lions. Its overall sobriety and discipline is such that the music speaks for itself. Capturing the essentially trochaic inflections of Hungarian speech with the knowing temperament of a native (Ms de Toth is full blood Hungarian) she lays out the keyboard songs with the patrician air of an old storyteller at a family gathering.
Her performances are persuasive. Take particular note of her attractive readings of the 14 Bagatelles: these she portrays with a kind of arid simplicity that enhances their now playful, now lonely ethos. This set would make an ideal introduction to Bartok's piano music, especially if you are still unfamiliar with the bulk of it. These are urbane, honest, eminently intelligible interpretations that will draw the uninitiated into the texts of this extraordinarily rich music.
June de Toth, a Hungarian-American pianist whose teachers include Gulda and Firkusny, presents a nicely varied selection of the composer's piano works. Her rhythmic verve, supplemented by lots of drive, is especially good in the dances, and one notices, especially in softer passages, that her tonal and dynamic sensitivity serves Bartok particularly well. The third of the Dirges (Vol.1, track 17) is especially gripping, as is the atmospheric rendering of the final movement of the Op.14 Suite in Vol.2. The piano pickup is warm and intimate.
In her interpretations, de Toth reveals the "earthiness" of much of this music, as well as its secret personality. Consider de Toth's handling of the Poco Lento on track seventeen of volume one. Without resorting to the headlong savagery favored by some pianists, de Toth is nonetheless uncannily good at creating the bell-like chords (reminiscent of Rachmaninov's C# Minor Prelude) so crucial to the powerful development of the image of this miniature tone poem. Bartok was a master of rhythm and vitality, and mixed them well in a 20th century blender to concoct his catchy folk tunes and dances. Pianist de Toth herself proves to be an artful combiner, measuring requisite proportions of color, warmth, and energy in these pieces. The Three Burlesques falls strangely on the ear coming after the folksongs, yet de Toth is compelling here, as well as in the spell-casting episodes called Four Dirges. That variety of expression, being so finely conceived initially by Bartok and interpreted with insight and compassion by pianist de Toth, should offer grounds for deeper exploration and appreciation of Bartok by the general listener. The Third Sketch alone is worth the price of the disc. Recommended.
Classical Music Archives
Bartok’s Solo Piano Works: Volumes 1 through 5. These are definitive versions of fascinating pieces by a composer who deserves to be better known. June de Toth is a true champion.