Bartók stood squarely in the line of great pianist-composers, and his concert music for piano – without or without other instruments and/or orchestra – was written for his own performance opportunities until 1923, when he divorced his first wife and married Ditta Pásztory (like her predecessor, one of his pupils). After that, he dedicated a number of his pieces to her, and eventually began composing with her in mind. The Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, commissioned by the Basel chapter of the International Society for Contemporary Music, was composed in 1937 and its premiere in January 1938 with the two Bartóks at the keyboards was Ditta’s concert debut. The composer later arranged it as a Concerto for Two Pianos, which they played with the New York Philharmonic under Fritz Reiner in 1943; this was Bartók’s last public performance. (The premiere had been given in London two months earlier.)
It is worth remembering that the piano is technically a percussion instrument itself, and the Sonata is in essence a percussion quartet, as expressive and interactively integrated as any of his string quartets. It begins with a big sonata-form movement, a wild ride of shifting metrical groupings after an ominous slower introduction. Strenuously developed, it is as long as the other two movements combined.
In contrast, those movements are almost character pieces, haunted night music and a quick, glittering, rondo-like dance. Bartók does remind us of the percussive possibilities of the pianos, which he keeps very much in the foreground. (The spatial layout of the instruments is also important.) But he also uses them as a sort of neutral canvas, primed by drums, brightened by the xylophone and triangle, warmed by tam-tam, and splashed – gently as well as aggressively – by shimmering cymbals. The composer was quite clear about the colors he wanted, specifying different kinds of sticks and where they should strike the instruments.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.