The chance to hear some of Bartók's solo piano music, mostly drawn from his pioneering field studies of folk music, lured me west to the reverberant acoustics of Elon University's restored Whitley Auditorium on the afternoon of February 17. The short recital featured Victoria Fischer, who has made a specialty of Bartók's music. She was educated at Centenary College of Louisiana, UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Texas at Austin and the Vienna Conservatory in Vienna, Austria. She has contributed a chapter to A Bartók Companion (Cambridge University Press) and, with Elliot Antokoletz and Benjamin Suchoff, edited Bartók Perspectives (Oxford University Press). A flyer in the concert program heralded a local Elon ImroVibes CD production of Fischer playing "the folk-inspired pieces of ... Bartók" to be released for sale in time for her fall concert. We'll look forward to hearing the results of this local enterprise.
A standard interpretation of Beethoven's Sonata in F Minor, Op. 10/2, opened the concert. Fischer's playing was characterized by clear articulation and a wide dynamic range. The beautifully-restored 1923 Steinway has a rich, solid bass sound and was full and mellow throughout its range with nothing tinny about its treble. Fischer's approach had plenty of temperament and none of the reticence several critics found in a well-known virtuoso's Raleigh performance of the "Pastoral" Sonata last month. I suspect many discerning listeners will find the full warm sound of the restored 1923 Steinway superior to many of its newer namesakes.
Her middle set consisted of the Three Mazurkas, Op. 50, and the Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 66, of Chopin. Fischer spoke briefly, noting that the mazurkas are unjustly neglected and too little played, observing that they contain some of the composer's loveliest music. Despite their dance rhythms (which are in turn sometimes neglected in performances), these three showed remarkable variety. No. 2 (in A Flat) has a charming melody and one could easily imagine a Hussar doing the sliding steps of the dance. The third (in C-Sharp Minor) seems to have contrasting feminine and assertive music as well as a strong sense of longing in its wistful treble part. Ominous opening chords and flowing arpeggios led to the well-known singing theme in the Fantaisie-Impromptu.
The highlight of the program, Bartók's Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, came last. Fischer pointed out that while the melodies were authentic folk songs, the accompaniments are by the composer. In album notes for Lili Kraus' Bartók CD on Vanguard, Halsey Stevens writes: "In (this set), melodies are frequently accompaniment figures on both sides of the melody, but there is a considerable ingenuity in the invention of other kinds of accompaniment, occasionally suggesting an elementary kind of counterpoint." No. 5, with irregular and interrupted rhythms, was about old men complaining about their wives. The longest, No. 6, is a sort of "Romeo and Juliet" that has a mournful opening and a poignant "pp" melody. It was delightful to get a chance to hear some of Bartók's folk-influenced piano works in concert.