Sir András Schiff Plays Bartók

Concert by the New York Philharmonic on 20th April 2023, with Iván Fischer (conductor) and András Schiff (pianist) as guests, performing works by Dohnányi, Bartók and Mozart

Among my favourite CDs of classical music is a recording from 1996 of all three piano concertos by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, played by the Hungarian-born András Schiff and the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by the Hungarian-born Iván Fischer. If pushed to choose ten CDs of classical music for a desert island, these three piano concertos—which fit very neatly on one disc—would certainly count as essential, though I confess that an older set by Géza Anda and Ferenc Fricsay would win.[1]

That I tell you all this is because Schiff and Fischer were here in New York this week and performed the third concerto with the New York Philharmonic. Even had they paired this with something much less interesting than Mozart’s last symphony, nothing would have kept me from being there to watch and listen.


First up for the evening was Symphonic Minutes, a slight piece composed in 1933 by Ernő von Dohnányi. He too was Hungarian. He wasn’t even five years older than Bartók but he lived much longer. Both died in New York, Dohnányi in 1960 of pneumonia on a visit from an apparently comfortable post-war life in Florida, Bartók in 1945 from living his war years here in ill health and financial distress. Bartók while here wrote not only this third piano concerto but also the Concerto for Orchestra, both of which are important contributions to the 20th-century repertory. These and others of his later compositions get played so often here that Bartók sometimes seems to have been adopted as a son of New York.[2] By contrast, though Dohnányi turns up in concerts and recordings far more often now than a few decades ago, his whole output as a composer can still be safely described as obscure.

The program notes for the night go to some trouble to account for this obscurity as a reaction to allegations of Nazi collaboration, and even of war crimes. There plausibly is something to this: allegations did their damage, and still do despite being long discredited. The New York Philharmonic never had Dohnányi perform as a pianist in the many post-war years that he was readily available in America, and never played the Symphonic Minutes except the once in 1940.

Without in any way meaning to diminish the very real consequences of collaboation or the complex debate about co-existing with wretched governments as they come and go, I don’t think this history of unjust reputational damage is needed. The Symphonic Minutes show well enough that Dohnányi, for all his pre-war success as a pianist and conductor, was doomed to obscurity as a composer by locking himself into a conservative style with insufficient innovation.

This work in five movements is expertly well crafted, and is arguably even a gem of its kind. Its 13 minutes passed for me in more than adequate enjoyment, both for the composition and the execution. I shall be abundantly pleased to hear this piece again and anything else he wrote of similar quality (until now I knew of him mostly through chamber works), but its time in performance also passed entirely without excitement. From this one listening alone, I should not have been the slightest bit surprised if the program notes had told me that this music was composed as long ago as 1870.

As far as I know from reading, the cultural environment In 1933, or at any time between the wars, not only in music and not only in America, was more than usually consumed with moving on. It simply gave no space to new art that merely repeated the old, however well. All ears were instead tuned to Stravinsky (who also, as it happens, died in New York) and to the Second Viennese School, and to any number of modern composers everywhere else who were exploring the academic and emotional possibilities for taking music past the limits of tonality, and in America to a generation of composers who were at long last finding a voice that was distinct from European influence. In these years, writing in an old style brought outright derision even to Rachmaninov despite his addition of unique ingenuity by the bucket-load. However rewarding Symphonic Minutes is to listen to now, and likely was then, writing it in 1933 had no chance of getting even the best of composers any appreciation. We do lose from this, even though Dohnányi was no Rachmaninov.


Bartók, by contrast, had already carved out a lasting place as an innovator—and a highly individual one—even if it was not yet appreciated by American concert-goers (and thus also concert-sponsors) when Bartók arrived here in 1940.

As young men when the dying years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw Vienna rise to a centre of everything intellectual in Europe while the national cultures within the empire got ever more assertive in their yearning for independence, Bartók and the very slightly younger Zoltán Kodály threw themselves into collecting and cataloguing the folk musics of what we now know as Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. They certainly weren’t the first musicians from the European tradition of tonal music to look outside for inspiration. Debussy, for breaking pretty much everything in the old rule book, surely had many special skills that might have got him there anyway, yet he famously drew from exposure to oriental music, especially a gamelan, that he heard at the Paris World Fair in 1889. Bartók and Kodály weren’t even the first to find inspiration in specifically Hungarian folk music. But they studied it systematically and Bartók—much more like Debussy in some ways than is often remarked—incorporated its very different harmonies and rhythms into what plausibly would anyway have been a distinctive personal style for all his compositions, both large and small.

Unlike Messiaen with his modes of transcription or Schoenberg with 12-tone rows, Bartók is not known to have developed a formal system for taking his composition beyond tonality. This has always stood out for me because Bartók was notoriously a perfectionist, marking his scores with precise annotations all through. I guess that this disposition left him very concerned to end with exactly what he wanted without settling too soon on one set of strictures to escape another. The result is a corpus that I find pleasingly novel yet easily accessible. I doubt I’m at all alone in perceiving his work as more emotionally engaging than that of Schoenberg or Stravinsky.

Of Bartók’s three piano concertos, the first two are unquestionably the more interesting as music to listen to and yet it’s the third that I honestly enjoy the most. That my anticipation of this performance was not misplaced was immediately apparent just from the first bars. These are sparsely populated, just some rapid alternations between chords on piano violas and second violins, a few quiet thuds of the timpani, the combination already suggestive of mystery and disorientation and of promise too, which soon has its excitement punched into place by the start of a jaunty tune forte from the soloist. With the addition of long notes piano from the clarinets and a little later from a flute, and some pizzicato on the lower strings, and much elaboration of the jaunty tune, this introduction gets ever more complex without ever giving up its naturalness.

Does careful construction matter? Of course. Does knowledge of the details? Arguably not. Still, I was spell-bound, for although I feel I have always responded to this introduction’s setting of this concerto’s stage, I never had experienced it even nearly so affectingly from recordings. As much as I like my hi-fi, even to think that it reproduces as well as can be sensibly expected in a New York apartment, nothing beats live performance by an orchestra that’s so well-chosen and well-rehearsed that we can take fine technique in mood-setting for granted. This, in a city that can easily be seen as being all about putting on a show, is the essence of why I happily pay for good seats at concerts.

As noted at the start, Schiff and Fischer have been playing the Bartók concertos for a long, long time. Indeed, both are nearly ten years older now than was Bartók at his death (which left this concerto with its last 17 bars to be finished by a friend who I picture as honoured and eager yet apprehensive even though Bartók had left a draft). Unlike more than a few of the 20th century’s most prominent concertos, this music is not nearly so new that its performance could still be dominated by original interpreters.[3] Indeed, this concerto never had the chance: Bartók was dead and the wife he left it for (apparently to provide her with financial support) didn’t play it in public for decades. But neither has it even now, nearly eighty years since composition, been so long established in the repertory that modern performers treat it either as a war-horse to play mechanically or as a vehicle for re-interpretation that becomes quirky. Schiff and Fischer somehow gave the sense of being explorers while plainly they are still safe hands.

From perhaps no more than thirty feet away (fourth row, in the centre), I had as good a view as anyone of Schiff’s body movements and facial expressions while he played. The sceptic in me wonders, of course, how much of a performance might be put on in this respect. The test is in the music. Put aside that the performance anyway sounded different from others in David Geffen Hall for being played on a Bösendorfer instead of the ubiquitous Steinway (and that we had the benefit of second violins seated to the right), the piano playing itself sounded different from my memory of a much-listened-to recording. Schiff has written that for all Bartók’s meticulously detailed notation and respect of it in performance (as far as can be known from recordings of Bartók playing others of his piano works), the Bartók way is not to be a robot but to play with personality. It showed. I was often transported and i was never disappointed.

That said, I was once disoriented, and not just for a while but at a place that’s vital for effect. I know from recordings that there is in the last movement a brief but distinct silence before a change of tempo near the end. I would not have said it was much different from the pause between second and third movements, but I had to look at the score to see that the pause between movements is marked explicitly as a comma and the pause within the third movement is specifically two bars (641 and 642, immediately before changing from Allegro vivace to Presto). What I got on the night was several seconds while pianist and conductor looked at each other for cues. How much of this was deliberate is beyond my resources to determine, though I note that my score is a revision from 1994 and its introduction picks out exactly this tempo change among its edits. Please anyway do not mistake me in what weight I give to this. Far more important is that I cannot remember any concerto for which I have clapped so hard and for so long.

For Children

It’s customary, though not reliable with the New York Philharmonic, that the soloist for a concerto ends the applause by playing an encore. There are broadly two styles. Both have some element of showing off, of course.

One is overt. For instance, suppose the main performance is Prokofiev’s second piano concerto, whose cadenza in the first movement must be among the most demanding of all. If what’s then chosen for an encore is a whole movement of Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata, the whole of which is legendary for its complexity, you can safely interpret the pianist as drawing attention to his ability to toss it off as if perfecting it cost nothing. I’m not grumbling about glimpsing such talent. But I’d have happily paid for the same pianist’s rendition of the whole sonata.

Better as an encore, it seems to me, is the other style: take a small and even simple piece and show off what you can bring to it with your extraordinary technique and insight. Bartók left us with a large amount of such material, mostly as small adaptations of folk tunes. Some are elaborated specially for performance. Many more are polished less with a goal of performance than of instruction. Though Bartók did play a few such pieces in his own concerts and recordings, he surely never anticipated that his volumes For Children would ever be performed all the way through for an audience, let alone get complete recordings (such as 442 146-2 by Zoltán Kocsis, inevitably another sometime collaborator of Fischer’s).

Schiff introduced his choice of encore by saying little more than “for children” and only then indistinctly enough that my neighbours didn’t make it out. I can’t say I recognised which one he played. I can say the audience’s absolute noiselessness was not for politeness.


History tells us that the dainty, manicured music—let’s call it stately—of Mozart’s last symphony was once regarded as daring and even as controversial, though apparently also as a restoration of civility after the one before (which I can’t help note in passing has long been my favourite). They must have been interesting times in their way, even if I exaggerate how this music was reacted to when new.

Among the complications is that although composers know very well that they build on the past, they have a natural interest not just in singing their own achievements but distancing from others’, if not dismissing them: Schubert famously, though perhaps mischievously, asked why anyone still listens to Mozart! Though audiences aren’t so fast, they too adjust their tastes as part of learning more. Children anyway acquire their tastes with open minds (albeit with the constraint of not being left to open inputs). Though I’m easily most comfortable with music that was composed not very much before my birth and rarely more than another lifetime earlier, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major (widely known as Jupiter) was composed roughly four of my lifetimes ago. Opportunity for changes of fashion has been abundant.

This was specially on my mind for this concert for the usual reason but with an emphasis. What’s usual is that choosing concerts in New York, if not everywhere, almost always involves some compromise about how much old music to pay for. Having been asked more than a few times with palpable despair something like how many more of these modern string quartets (by Shostakovich, would you believe) are still to come, I cannot attend a concert of Bartók and Mozart without wondering how many of my neighbours have come for the Mozart and suffer the Bartók.

Schiff and Fischer are etched into my mind on this point from an incident in 2011 when I was new to New York and just starting my first full-season sample of live music in one of the world’s most significant centres of its performance. Schiff and Fischer visited with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and played all three Bartók piano concertos at Carnegie Hall. I stupidly went only on one night and got only two concertos. I missed the other because the rest of the programme on both nights was Schubert, much too much of it for my tastes even on the night with two of the Bartók.[4] At the end of the night, Fischer asked out loud for a vote on the orchestra’s encore. Who wants Bartók? Who wants Schubert?

Or was it the other way round? Either way, it was charming, and though Fischer plausibly can’t ever be anything but charming (and genuinely so), I expect he was helped by knowing all along that he would have the orchestra play both, whatever came of the vote. The vote’s result did not, however, go unnoticed. It even made the New York Times: Emboldened Orchestras Are Embracing the New.[5]

Ten years (and a bit) on, how much has changed? Perhaps not much, but while the practical business of managing orchestras and filling concert halls looks set as continuing to see 20th-century music as needing a leavening, my take-away from this concert is that if anyone who attended came for the Mozart symphony and regarded the Bartók piano concerto as their compromise about what to pay for, then I imagine they can’t have felt even slightly let down about this Mozart by this orchestra with this guest conductor and they’ve experienced the Bartók as well as can ever be expected.

[1]The set by Schiff, Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra is much the better as a sound recording, as it would want to be in 1996. I have it as 0630-13158-2 on TELDEC. The earlier set was recorded in 1959 and 1960 for two LPs each released the next year on Deutsche Grammaphon. They were remastered for release in 1995 on one CD: 447 399-2 in The Originals series. These originals, unlike some in the series, fully deserve their reputation.

[2]Think, for instance, of how often the New World Symphony of Dvořák is played here. True, this is welcome and is even inevitable. The symphony may even be the most popular of all throughout the English-speaking world (to say nothing of its regard in the Czech Republic). But then convince yourself that this high exposure in New York has nothing to do with the symphony’s having been both written and first performed here—indeed, at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic, which had commissioned it. Incidentally, if you have any interest at all in New York’s musical history, then if you’re ever visiting and find yourselves in the right parts of town you may like to remember that Dvořák has a life-size statue in the garden at the north-east corner of Stuyvesant Square and Bartók has a commemorative plaque at 309 West 57th Street. Of course, to blow away my own theory, I leave you to find in obscurity the tiny plaque where Edgard Varèse lived.

[3]Contrast with the first violin and cello concertos of Shostakovich. If permitted only one CD for my desert island, then my choice could only be MHK 63327 from Sony. It is just of these two concertos. Each is the first recording by an American orchestra—the New York Philharmonic, as it happens, for the violin. Each was made—in 1956 and 1959, respectively—within days of public performances that weren’t many weeks later than the first public performances anywhere. The composer was present for one of the recordings, and the soloist for each is the piece’s dedicatee. Not only can you not get any more definitive than this, but since the dedicatees are David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, it was understandably decades before even the brightest stars of new times committed to either of these works. There are other recordings by Oistrakh. I even prefer the performance on a recording for Melodia in poor sound only a little later the same year. Still, with the possible exception of Leonid Kogan in 1960, nobody else’s recordings that I’ve heard, let alone bought, are even imaginable as competition until Maxim Vengerov in 1994. It may be no concidence that he plays it not unlike Oistrakh and that the conductor is Rostropovich.

[4]That’s how I weighted these things at the time, and I’m glad to be spared from testing whether I’ve changed. I anyway had the small but non-negligible consolation of already holding a ticket to a performance of the remaining concerto by other hands in only a few months. Such ready availability is what we tell ourselves comes free with living in cities like London and New York.

[5]If I have the night right, then I am an indistinct spot in the darkness of this article’s photograph. It’s the only way I’m getting into the New York Times! More than two decades before, but in my industry, I made some small contributions to stories that my collaborators told me were taken up by this and other national newspapers. These stories were about computer privacy. My collaborators had detected unusual behaviour and observed closely enough to infer such things as the disguised sending of what we now term personally identifying information. Manufacturers denied what was going on. My contributions were to examne the software’s binary code for proof, e.g., of the disguise by what in those days counted as encryption. Reverse engineering back then was very much in its infancy and was far beyond any non-technical reporting. That any stories about computer privacy were ever thought newsworthy is so quaint now.