Arbiter Records 149

Irén Marik: From Bach to Bartók

Disc 1

With a concentration on Irén Marik’s Bach and Bartók we find her probing deeply into their mysteries, forms, and expressions. Two examples of Beethoven’s major piano sonatas, the “Moonlight” and his final Sonata no. 32 receive new life and perspective from her unique summoning art.

  1. Bach-Siloti Prelude in G minor
  2. Beethoven Piano Sonata "Moonlight" op. 27, no.2: I
  3. Beethoven Piano Sonata "Moonlight" op. 27, no.2: II
  4. Beethoven Piano Sonata "Moonlight" op. 27, no.2: III
  5. Beethoven Piano Sonata op. 111: I
  6. Beethoven Piano Sonata op. 111: II
  7. Ravel Jeux d'eau
  8. Ravel Miroirs: Oiseaux tristes
  9. Ravel Sonatine: I
  10. Ravel Sonatine: II
  11. Ravel Sonatine: III
  12. F. Couperin Ordre XXVI: La convalescente
  13. F. Couperin Ordre XXVI: Gavotte
  14. F. Couperin Ordre XXVI: La Sophie
  15. F. Couperin Ordre XXVI: L' epineuse - Rondeau
  16. Chopin Nocturne in B flat minor, op. 9, no. 1
  17. Scriabin Etude in C sharp minor, op. 2, no. 1

Disc 2

  1. Bartók Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs
  2. Bartók Sketch no. 5 Rumanian folk melody
  3. Bartók Sketch no. 6 In Walachian style
  4. Bartók Bagatelle no. 2
  5. Bartók Bagatelle no. 3
  6. Bartók Sketch no. 2 Seesaw. . .
  7. Bartók Mikrokosmos 67 Thirds against a Single Voice
  8. Bartók Mikrokosmos 69 Chord Study
  9. Bartók Mikrokosmos 107 Melody in the mist
  10. Bartók Mikrokosmos 122 Chords together and opposed
  11. Bartók Mikrokosmos 125 Boating
  12. Bartók Mikrokosmos 132 Major seconds broken and together
  13. Bartók Mikrokosmos 137 Unison
  14. Bartók Mikrokosmos 126 Change of time
  15. Bartók Mikrokosmos 133 Syncopation
  16. Bartók Mikrokosmos 145 Chromatic inversion a
  17. Bartók Mikrokosmos 145 Chromatic inversion b
  18. Bartók Mikrokosmos 146 Ostinato
  19. Bartók Mikrokosmos 148 Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm 1
  20. Bartók Mikrokosmos 149 Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm 2
  21. Bartók Mikrokosmos 150 Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm 3
  22. Bartók Mikrokosmos 151 Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm 4
  23. Bartók Mikrokosmos 152 Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm 5
  24. Bartók Mikrokosmos 153 Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm 6
  25. Bartók For Children X Kitty Kitty
  26. Bartók For Children XII Chain, chain
  27. Bartók For Children XIII A lad was killed
  28. Bartók For Children XIV The poor kids of Csanad
  29. Bartók For Children XXI Parsley and Celery
  30. Bartók For Children XXXI Mother, dear mother
  31. Bartók For Children XXXIII Stars, starts, brightly shine
  32. Bartók For Children XXXXII Swineherd dance
  33. J.S. Bach Invention in C
  34. J.S. Bach Invention in C minor
  35. J.S. Bach Invention in D
  36. J.S. Bach Invention in D minor
  37. J.S. Bach Invention in E
  38. J.S. Bach Invention in E minor
  39. J.S. Bach Invention in F
  40. J.S. Bach Invention in F minor
  41. J.S. Bach Sinfonia in A minor
  42. J.S. Bach French Suite no. 5 in G Allemande
  43. J.S. Bach French Suite no. 5 in G Courante
  44. J.S. Bach French Suite no. 5 in G Sarabande
  45. J.S. Bach French Suite no. 5 in G Gavotte
  46. J.S. Bach French Suite no. 5 in G Bourée I
  47. J.S. Bach French Suite no. 5 in G Bourée II
  48. J.S. Bach French Suite no. 5 in G Gigue
  49. Scarlatti Sonata in B minor L. 449/K. 27
  50. Scarlatti Sonata in E minor L. 275/ K. 294
  51. Liszt Consolation no. 3

The arc of musical interpretation leads to extremes, to ends we try to explain by using terms such as Apollonian or Dionysian. And the gradations between them can appear in any degree within a great artist’s playing. What was striking in first hearing Irén Marik’s seemingly lost, once hidden art, was its seeking a pure musical statement, a flow contrasting with the ubiquitous public-oriented mannerisms of virtuosi who were extroverts, either unintentionally or through calculation. Marik possessed a characteristic found amongst Hungary’s finest pianists: a way of projecting musical structure so that every compositional and sonic detail created a specific constellation. Added to this heightened sense of architecture is a boldness, an indomitable spirit rooted in the Apollonian but guided by a Dionysian’s experience, a balance which may show how far one can go while allowing the sound to sustain its vital thread of narrative and purpose.

Such individual playing, layered, complex in its working out of the strata, made one wonder about the individual behind the pianism. Yet Marik brushed aside with a polite puzzled smile any attempts to probe into her life’s events, making it seem an imposition to bother her with such matters while there was music to learn, discuss, explore. Therefore any facts gathered during our encounters and from a distance of twenty years after her death are few and precious. Initial curiosity about Bartók’s role in her life met with a terse dismissal, of having spent six months under the composer’s guidance and deeming that she had gained “little” of value from him (see the notes to the first volume of her recordings: Bartók in the Desert, Arbiter 143). Unexpectedly, one friend of the composer’s offered a differing view. During a 1983 visit to Budapest, harpsichordist-organist János Sebestyén brought this writer to visit the octogenarian Dr. Peter Véghely, who had often heard pianists such as Ignaz Friedman and Emil von Sauer and had saved photos of these artists taken locally, amassing a unique archive of memorabilia, now missing. Conditions were placed for our meeting: the doctor cinematically stipulated that he only received guests after midnight, as he was engaged in medical research until late morning, and then retired. Did he know Dr. Miklos Marik, whom I was to see the following day? “Miki! Why are you visiting him?” Mention of Irén brought forth surprise: “Csibi! (her nickname) – is she still alive? What did she tell you about Bartók?” Dr. Véghely insisted that Irén had studied with Bartók for at least two years, and as he had been close to the composer in the 1930s, he recalled Bartók’s speaking of her. Yet Marik’s playing of Bartók, a lifelong constant, was transformed to some extent like all the music she mastered, by her insight and conceived in her fashion. One can only speculate.

Dr. Marik lived near Véghely up in Buda’s hills, with his wife Sari, whose graciousness and beauty transcended her age. Marik’s eminence as a surgeon convinced the regime not to seize and ‘communalize’ the family’s house or their country cottage in Csopak, near Lake Balaton, where he grew grapes. With an intonation similar to his sister’s, he described how “after operating all day, I was too tired to concentrate on literature, so with my medical knowledge of bacteria, I read up on winemaking over the years.” With progressively failing eyesight, he stood up, tall and sturdy, in his early eighties, to open a trap door, helping me down a creaky ladder to a cellar which housed two oak casks. “Taste!” His red wine was riveting, a deep, complex experience of legendary stature: “These vines were originally Italian, from the Veneto, and they took well to the Balaton’s soil and climate.” He reached for a funnel and decanted this triumph of nature into a bottle, a gift for the visitor bringing news of his distant, adored sister. “What do you think of this one? It is a year younger.” We drank. “Yes, it will be ready in ten years, superior to the other, but I will not be here to enjoy it.” The house’s facade had bullet holes, a souvenir of the Russians’ arrival in 1945. The Mariks had raised seven children, several of whom became doctors and surgeons, one an actor, another a priest: one had been arrested for defying the Communist regime. Perhaps this may seem a digression, but such was Irén’s environment and her immediate family.

Marik’s eldest brother Paul, the remaining sibling in their family, had been stationed in Washington as the Hungarian Consul. He attended an intimate send-off for Mr. and Mrs. Winston Churchill in March 1946, one month before his efforts and rank as a diplomat succeeded in obtaining a visa for Irén to visit the United States and tour. She stayed with Paul and his wife, who introduced her to Washington’s elite society, including Fiorello La Guardia, the former celebrated mayor of New York City, who in his early years had been a diplomat in Hungary. Irén’s skill with English came from a few years spent in London in the 1920s studying with George Woodhouse (a Leschetizky pupil) and giving recitals throughout Britain, Ireland, playing for BBC radio.

Marik’s American debut took place on 6 November 1946 at Constitution Hall: Bach-Busoni: Chaconne, Liszt: Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude, Kodály: Dances of Marosszék, Delibes-Dohnanyi: Valse from ‘Naila’, and possibly as an encore, Harold Bauer’s transcription of Bach’s chorale Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Next, the National Gallery of Art (2 February 1947): Kodály, Bartók, Liszt, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 53, and four Scarlatti Sonatas (in G, B, B minor, and D). In June, a gala at the Watergate complex, where Marik joined Gladys Swarthout, the Don Cossack Chorus, Jesus Maria Sanroma, Hilde Somer, Jorge Bolet, Sydney Foster, and Joseph Fuchs. Later that month she performed Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto with the National Symphony under Bates.

Hungary’s dissolution into a communist state in 1947 compelled Irén to defect; she applied for and was granted United States citizenship, never to return to her homeland, joking years later that flawed English and neglect of her native tongue made for a linguistic limbo. Marik was offered a teaching position at Sweet Briar College, a move which allowed for her professional survival: she spoke little of her years in Virginia, which consisted of giving lessons, four to six hours of daily practice when possible, and occasional concerts. On retiring, she moved to the California desert. Marik’s life was essentially a tireless quest for perfection in playing the music she chose. Whereas many pianists reevaluate a work and continually develop ideas and new approaches to its interpretation, Marik somehow instantly grasped a work in its totality, which demanded years of effort to refine each nuance, give poise to every phrase and to set in proportion each stylistic trait according to her vision.

Anxious to see the hands that had performed Liszt’s Bénédiction so masterfully, it came as a surprise to note they did not span far beyond an octave. When asked how she could play the taxing stretches Liszt demanded, she replied that it took great effort, emphasizing that one shouldn’t think of it as struggling to reach these wide intervals but rather to ‘open’ the hand out. All her musical observations carried an underlying humility which alluded to her efforts, of a lifetime’s devotion to form herself into an artisan proud of having mastered the elements of technique so that a composer’s intentions would be properly served.

Alexander Siloti’s rarely heard Bach transcription was a work Marik often placed at the beginning of a concert: the distortion on the tape was caused by an improper setting of the original recording level, yet ultimately irrelevant, as her gripping projection of the organ prelude made its inclusion essential.

A challenge arose in selecting performances for this edition, which will document her art in three two-cd sets ­ to somehow intuit Marik’s preferences: one observes that her two hundred reels were randomly marked, some offering clues such as ‘practice’, ‘not good’. Others indicated as ‘master’ were less interesting than run-throughs taped days before a performance or home recording session. In a way the tapes spoke out for themselves, with her essential performances announcing themselves as being vital, capturing one from the first note onward, leaving the others to sound incomplete, not fully realized yet documenting the steps she made towards a satisfactory performance. The Beethoven Sonata Op. 27, No. 2 was a work Marik rarely played, yet the better of her two surviving accounts shows how this pianist’s individual conception could bring new life to a composition one usually dreads hearing, making it as vital as a late sonata. The Op. 111 exists in sixteen versions, including a private LP from the 1970s. The most compelling reading came from a master tape engineered by Lee Erwin in the mid-1950s, at the time of her Zodiac sessions, possibly intended for future publication with the Sonata Op. 109 heard on her first volume.
Marik’s love for French music is best represented by her Debussy performances (in the forthcoming third volume) and the few examples she left of Ravel. For her first Draco LP project, a follow-up to the Zodiac sessions of nearly twenty years earlier, she chose the Sonatine. The LP master had a characteristic correct playing but one relaxed pre-session tape used as a preparatory guide for her upcoming home recording session allowed for more expressive largesse. She coupled the Ravel with a Couperin ordre, providing an example of how one can implement his ornaments on a modern instrument (a 9-foot Steinway grand).

Marik’s Chopin tended towards being literal, delivering all in a periodic strophic manner while the music seemed to beg for a performer to obliterate any and all bar lines. This early nocturne, a work she enjoyed playing over many decades, is shaped with an angularity reminiscent of Bartók’s structures. Marik rarely delved into the Russian repertoire, usually limiting her programs to a pair of Rachmaninoff preludes (Op. 32, nos. 10 and 12), yet in 1974 she studied a group of Scriabin preludes and this early etude.

The Bartók works heard here were recorded over a twenty-eight year period and represent a consistent mindset: a magisterial repose which depicts each work in the Mikrokosmos with clarity, unfolding its innate ambiguity, not unlike an etching of Escher’s, replete with unusual contours and overlapping geometric abstractions, within grasp but retaining its enigmas. For Children and the Bach Inventions were her final recordings, made at home in 1983, a time when she fought against the onset of arthritis by increasing her practicing and developed a legato touch based on a transferal of weight.

Bach’s French Suite no. 5 survived in multiple versions, two of which were outstanding, their differences quite telling; one was played with consummate perfection and balance, the other similarly, but surpassing the earlier reading by containing a subtly enhanced layer of nuances, touch and articulation. This latter account was selected for publication, as it presented a fuller realization of the more straight-forward performance, a guide to how Marik activated her finishing touches. Marik enjoyed playing Scarlatti throughout her life: two examples heard here are from a home recital and a public performance. The concluding work by Liszt reflects her pride in never having had to study his music with anyone: “I understood his music on my own.”
-Allan Evans ©2006

note: Our third and final 2-cd set of Marik’s recordings will include works by Liszt, Debussy, and Messiaen, the latter performed with her duo partner John Ranck.