June De Toth, Bartok: Solo Piano Works Volume 1

Dan Kaufman

By Dan Kaufman

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

In 1904, at a resort in northern Hungary, 23-year-old composer and pianist Bela Bartok heard a Transylvanian-born maid singing a folk tune in the adjacent room and quickly notated the song, realizing immediately that his compositions would be changed forever. The young composer wrote to his sister that December that he now "had a new plan, to collect the finest Hungarian folksongs and to raise them, adding the best possible piano accompaniments, to the level of art song." This first volume in a magnificent five-volume set of Bartok's piano works, performed by Hungarian-American pianist June de Toth, bears many fruits of Bartok's epiphany hearing the young maid. Among the treasures are Bartok's 1918 collection "Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances," which includes both fiery dances and melancholic modal songs full of lyrical dissonances. Another standout is de Toth's rendition of the composer's "Seven Sketches," which marries a love of Debussyan harmony with Romanian and Central European folk melodies. An ideal interpreter for the project, de Toth has a special rapport with Bartok's music; in 1995, for the 50th anniversary of the composer's death, she was given a special invitation to play at the Bartok Memorial House in Budapest. She was the only American invited.