It is difficult to imagine that Béla Bartók’s immensely vital, colourful and assured Piano Concerto No. 3 could have been composed while he was crushed by poverty, despair and a wasting illness. Bartók and his wife had fled to the United States shortly before the Nazis marched into Hungary, and it was in America that he would die in humiliating circumstances: there was hardly any interest in having his works performed and his financial situation suffered as a result. Bartók had suffered greatly from fear and insecurity in previous years; he was pessimistic by nature and had already withstood the ordeals of the First World War. Only the psalm-like middle movement of the concerto, however, gives any hint of darker emotions, when Bartók’s characteristic night music creates a somewhat feverish mood. The weapons with which Bartók had always fought back against his many misfortunes lay elsewhere: his harmonic and melodic invention and a strong sense of rhythmic propulsion. These characteristics of his work were closely linked to his great love of folk music. As composer and researcher he had concentrated on the musical folklore of Hungary and Romania in particular, but his interest in such things stretched far beyond the Balkans. Folk music not only provided him with inspiration for his music, but was also a symbol of brotherhood and comprehension, a language that transcended national borders and social differences.
Compared with the previous two piano concertos, the third concerto is remarkably mild and classical in tone. It forms part of the development that Bartók’s style underwent in his final years: the depressing circumstances of his daily life made him less inclined towards experimentation and modernism and his music gained a more romantic and poetical character. The fact that he himself could not take the soloist’s part also required him to make certain concessions: whilst the first two concertos had been tailored to his own virtuoso piano technique, he composed the third concerto for his wife Ditta and spared her the extreme technical challenges that he had previously demanded of himself.
At times the play of the musical lines in this concerto is almost Mozart-like in form. This does not mean that Bartók contented himself with older forms like a neo-classicist, but rather that he broke them open: this is particularly true of the second movement (Adagio religioso), in which modern insecurities creep into its classical and manageable world. The piano’s opening prayer-like statement — quiet and impressive chords — is answered by shrill fluttering voices; these are possibly not so threatening as in Bartók’s earlier examples of night music, but are just as capricious and disorienting. This, however, is only temporary, for the Finale contains some of the most vital music that Bartók was ever to compose.
Bartók was also working on the Viola Concerto at the same time and clearly had a premonition that the Third Piano Concerto would be his final creation, writing the words “The end” after the last bar in his autograph. He did not live long enough to complete the orchestration of the final seventeen bars; this was carried out by his friend and collaborator Tibor Serly, who did the same for the unfinished Viola Concerto.
Translation: Peter Lockwood