The six volumes making up Bartók’s Mikrokosmos series are often appreciated mainly for their pedagogical intent. But dynamic French pianist Cédric Tiberghien is out to demonstrate just how expressive and individual these short etudes can be, and that they may offer insights into Bartók’s compositional practice.

 

With this disc, Tiberghien investigates the fifth book in the series. It contains miniatures devoted specifically to technique, such as ‘chords together and in opposition’, ‘alternating thirds’, and ‘syncopation’. But there are numerous other works, which spotlight Bartók’s transformation and adaption of Eastern European folk material. There are also plenty of simply gorgeous musical moments, as in the fourth miniature, Boating, which undulates with dreamy modal harmonies.  

Also on the programme are the Romanian Folk Dances, which are some of Bartók’s most well-known compositions, particularly in their incarnations for violin and piano, and for orchestra. The piano arrangements permit plenty of flexibility in interpretation, and Tiberghien’s readings are full of fun and energy, with a refreshingly free approach to tempo.

The Bagatelles are fascinating. Composed in 1908, they demonstrate a composer (not yet 30) with an innovative harmonic imagination, looking to bend the rules inherited from the Romantic period. Tiberghien negotiates the idiosyncrasies of each bagatelle with ease, whether it’s light and shimmering textural atmospheres, or jaunty dances with coltish melodies and brash dissonances. One can hear the ripples of numerous directions music was taking in the early 20th century (particularly Debussy’s harmonic excursions), but it’s the exploration of folk material that marks this music out as distinctly Bartók’s.

The Allegro Barbero is perhaps his most famous solo piano work – despite its very 20th-century ‘barbarism’. It draws heavily on the Romantic piano solo tradition in terms of dramatic expression and also harmony, so it’s no wonder this one is such a crowd pleaser. Tiberghien’s ability to manage dramatic textural change is on proud display here, as he transitions from full-bodied, sweeping gestures to light, pinpoint passagework.

Finally, Bartók’s more extreme experimentations in harmony and thematic development may be heard in the Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Folk Songs. These represent some of the most intimate music on the disc – quiet, dreamy episodes balanced with more rousing fantasies. Tiberghien’s reading is highly nuanced and will make a fantastic discovery for newcomers to Bartók’s piano works.