Three short scenes from the life of Bela Bartok


The Miraculous Mandarin for piano four hands

Some time ago I had the opportunity to see Berliner Philharmoniker play, back to back, Mahler (the Eighth) and Bartok (concerto for orchestra). It was instructive: while the Mahler was clearly difficult, it was fun, the musicians enjoyed themselves playing him; but during the Bartok their facial expressions were -- tense.

So are those of Chamayou and Vitaud when they play Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin in piano transcription for four hands: their eyes are riveted to the score, their faces stone hard and pale, their hands beat out an uncombed mess of sound like merciless threshing machines.

Orchestration makes the work transparent: it is easier to spy a rustling wind as it slithers through the undergrowth of strings. Here, transcription acts like camouflage: the impression of the whole work becomes like a pietra-dura black-and-white mosaic, dense, impenetrable.

Aside from that, the work is, of course, totally deranged; yet, you would not guess it from Bartok's photos which show a perfectly sane, distinguished-looking gentleman. (See above).

A number of short skits suggest itself:


A cafe in Budapest. Bartok sits calmly. From his head rises barely perceptible smoke.

Friend: How are you, Bela!
Bartok: I am fine.


Same cafe.

Bartok's doctor: How are you, Bartok?
Bartok: Fine. Much better now.
Bartok's doctor: Are you staying away from composing, like I advised you?
Bartok: Oh, yes, yes.


Bartok's study. Bartok's mother enters abruptly. Bartok jumps up from his desk and frantically tries to cover up his work.

Bartok's Mother: What are you doing in here?
Bartok: Oh, nothing, nothing!


Malhereusement, their Miraculous Mandarin is not on You Tube, but here Chamayou and Vitaud (plus friends) play Le carnavale des animaux. But the Bartok is better.


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