August 31, 2006


Bartók: Mikrokosmos (complete). Jenő Jandó, piano, with Tamara Takács, mezzo-soprano, and Balázs Szokolay, piano. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     It takes endurance to listen to the complete Mikrokosmos – all two-and-a-half hours of it.  It takes tremendous skill to play the whole thing with attentiveness, not to mention subtlety, as Jenő Jandó does.  And it takes a certain amount of guts for Naxos to release this two-CD set – because, as remarkable as the music is for pianists, most of it does not present an especially rewarding listening experience.

     Bartók wrote the 153 piano miniatures of Mikrokosmos between 1926 and 1939.  They are definitely his “piano method” and, collectively, a major work, but even he was not quite sure how to characterize them, saying that they could either represent a small world or the world of small ones – that is, children.  The easier pieces could in fact be played by children, but not so the later ones.  And the work as a whole was intended as instructional, not for performance.  At least the first four of its six books have a decidedly academic bent, despite a few listening highlights here and there.

     It is difficult to convey just how much this work sprawls.  The track listing alone takes up three pages of the enclosed six-page booklet.  The pieces are as brief as 18 seconds, with quite a few under 30 seconds and a very large number under one minute.  Only four pieces, all in Book VI, last two minutes or more.  One of those, the longest of all at four-and-a-half minutes (twice as long as any other piece here), is a small masterpiece: No. 144, “Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths.”  This piece’s decidedly pedestrian title belies its expressiveness; but other pieces’ more evocative titles (No. 108, “Wrestling”; No. 109, “From the Island of Bali”) do not necessarily mean that the pieces themselves are any more inventive than ones whose titles sound ordinary (No. 122, “Chords Together and in Opposition”).

     Jenő Jandó takes every single piece seriously, from the “Six Unison Melodies” with which Mikrokosmos begins to the “Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm” with which it ends.  Jandó and Naxos deserve extra credit for including the multiple versions that Bartók wrote of several pieces – this explains the occasional presence of a mezzo-soprano and a second pianist.  If you are a pianist, simply studying Bartók’s method and hearing how he builds logically from piece to piece, starting with the most basic elements of playing and adding harmonic and rhythmic complexity, is fascinating.  And a few of the pieces in the early books are interesting in and of themselves: for example, No. 92, “Chromatic Invention (2)”; and Nos. 79 and 80, each less than 50 seconds long, which are homages to, respectively, Johann Sebastian Bach and Robert Schumann.

     Yet it is hard to escape the reality that Bartók intended Mikrokosmos to be played, not heard.  It is only in the 32 pieces of Books V and VI that truly performance-worthy works appear.  So although this complete Mikrokosmos emphatically deserves a (++++) rating for its ambition and the excellence of Jandó’s performance, it has to be said that this is by no means a work for everyone.  Even dedicated pianists are unlikely to want to sit through the whole thing in one sitting – six sittings, one per book, seems a more congenial approach.  But there is one thing all owners of this set should enjoy knowing: the first CD may contain the largest number of tracks ever put on a single CD – 96 of them.  Amazing; just amazing.

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