When Sir Georg Solti ran into his old classmate Gyorgy Sandor in Salzburg a couple of summers ago, the two had much to reminisce about. Both had been students at Budapest’s famous Liszt Academy of Music. “I remember Georg well,” says Sandor. “He was a superb pianist and a student of Dohnanyi. Somehow all of the performing students went to Dohnanyi, which I did too; but after a year and a half Bartok listened to me, and I stayed with him from there on.” Sandor and Solti also share a deep love for the music of Bartok, and it wasn’t long before Bartok came up in their conversation.
Sandor told Solti of the recent discovery of a transcription for solo piano, in Bartok’s own hand, of his famous Concerto for Orchestra, arguably the greatest orchestral piece of the 20th century. “It was his son Peter Bartok who first told me about the score about three years ago,” says Sandor. “There were terrible lawsuits concerning Bartok’s music, and royalties in all sorts of directions. The Hungarian government, the publishers, the family, were all suing and countersuing one another for rights. When Bartok’s widow died three or four years ago, Peter finally received all of his manuscripts. I’m in touch with Peter all the time, and when he found the manuscript, he called me immediately and told me about it. He put me in charge of making it playable and getting it ready for publication.”
Solti immediately asked Sandor if he would be willing to give the world premiere of the transcription in Chicago, as part of a five-year Bartok cycle that at that time was just getting under way. “I said I’d be delighted,” says Sandor, “and so, here I am. Chicago is certainly one of the major music centers of the world, having as it does the world’s best orchestra, and since I haven’t played in Chicago since God knows when, it’s especially a pleasure. People there probably think I’ve died or disappeared or something, but I’m still very active.”
Sandor points out that he is the only student of Bartok’s to go on to actively concertize, and he is still most often associated with the music of his former teacher. In 1965, Sandor received the Grand Prix du Disque for his monumental nine-record set of the complete piano repertoire of Bartok, the interpretations by which all others are still measured. He has recently begun recording again for CBS Records, including the new transcription of Concerto for Orchestra and all three Bartok piano concertos.
Bartok chose Sandor to premiere several of his works, and Sandor was a constant friend and confidant during Bartok’s tragic last years in the States, from 1940 to 1945. “I had come over in 1939 for my Carnegie Hall debut,” Sandor recalls, “and given the Nazi takeover, saw no point in returning home once I arrived here. Bartok came a year later, as soon as his mother died.” Sandor denies the often-stated idea that the American public rejected Bartok. “When he arrived here, you already had Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Einstein, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Rubinstein. The country had been invaded by genius, all within a very short time, and it took time to absorb and appreciate all of them. If Bartok had lived longer, he would have been where he should be, but as it was, he just took his turn. If an orchestra gave an all-Bartok concert, the next time it would be an all-Stravinsky or all-Hindemith concert.
“He had a very difficult time establishing himself in the five short years he was here. He couldn’t get any money from Europe because of the war, and he was suffering terribly from leukemia, about which little was known then. He always had a temperature, and was weak and miserable. Financially he was not very well-off, but he was not starving. Much of this was his pride; I personally passed on an invitation to him from a university in Seattle which he refused, saying he was in too poor health. I told him they weren’t asking him to be there all the time, they just wanted to put his name there, and he would just do a concert once a year or so and have a few students. That’s all. He said, “Well, I can’t accept money for that.’
“The Concerto for Orchestra was to have been approved by his publisher by the 30th of September, 1945, and he had to send it there before the deadline. He gave me the score around September 20th to correct the second set of proofs, which I did, and sent it off. He then died on the 26th. Little did I ever think then that I would be playing it on the piano one day.”
How can a pianist’s ten fingers and the limited sonorities of the piano be a match for a full-size symphony orchestra and Bartok’s infinite orchestral shadings? “It can’t, it doesn’t want to, and it’s not supposed to anyway,” says Sandor. The two are simply not comparable. “We have the same suspicion about all transcriptions, but after all, what is a transcription? Simply a presentation of musical material on some other instrument. Some are better than others, but Bach wrote The Art of Fugue for no instrument at all, and everything we hear in The Musical Offering is a transcription.
“Bartok had two reasons for transcribing the concerto. One was purely practical, in that American Ballet Theatre commissioned it because they wanted to choreograph it and didn’t want to hire an orchestra for the rehearsals. That never took place, in part because they thought the transcription was unplayable.” But Bartok wouldn’t have done it for practical reasons alone. Sandor says the transcription is “another aspect of the same thing–Bartok wrote a transcription of Dance Suite as well. I’ve talked to conductors who, after having heard the transcription, tell me, “I will never conduct this piece again, because I heard things that cannot be done in the orchestra.’ It’s all like looking through a prism: you see one aspect or dimension from one angle, and a completely different set of colors from another. It is playable, as I hope to prove, and doesn’t want to compete with the orchestra, but certain harmonic aspects and voice leadings come through with greater clarity on the piano.”
The world premiere of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra transcription will make up the second half of Sandor’s Allied Arts recital; the first half will consist of music of Bach, Busoni, Beethoven, Liszt, and Debussy. The program takes place Sunday afternoon at 3 at Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan; tickets are $5 to $25. Call 435-6666 for further information.