All Béla Bartók’s piano concerts other than the Third were composed for his own touring performances. The Second Concerto, begun in October 1930, was completed one year later. If the composer had set himself the task of surpassing Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka in terms of “major” technique then he achieved his aim, and with interest: the concerto demands true heroism from both the soloist and the orchestra.
In the first movement, in the avant-garde fashion of the 1920s (and clearly influenced by Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments), Bartók gets by without the use of the string section. The partners of the piano are, first and foremost, the brass and percussion It is in the second movement that the strings make their first appearance, albeit with mutes and without vibrato. Their chorale enters into a dialogue with the elegiac solos of the piano accompanied by the thunder of the timpani. In the middle of the Adagio Bartók included a colourful and mercurial scherzo. The finale, based on folkloric intonations, is a worthy rival of the composer’s most “barbarian” works, though its ending is unexpectedly clear, as if a catharsis appears after difficulties that have been overcome.
Always extremely sincere in his music, Tchaikovsky composed his Fourth Symphony at one of the most critical periods of his life, after which he was left with “general recollections of passion, the terror of sensations I have felt.” Impressions of his disastrous marriage and hasty divorce came to form a feeling of general disappointment and lack of self-confidence in the composer’s mind. The acuteness of his personal sufferings made the composition of the symphony an incredibly difficult process which required almost a year of intense work (in comparison, Tchaikovsky wrote the opera The Queen of Spades in just forty-four days). As a result, a work emerged where the eternal problem of mankind – the uneven battle of the individual against external circumstances that are indifferent to his wishes and needs – was portrayed with hitherto unknown power. In the symphony’s introduction, during the threatening theme of Fate, Tchaikovsky presents the circumstances in such a way that it becomes clear that victory is impossible for friendless human volition, “there is no landing-stage … sail over this sea until grasps you and drags you to its depths.” The musical development of the first movement reflects the succession of natural psychological reactions at the recognition of the inevitability of Fate: anguish, confusion leading to despair and, lastly, the attempt to forget oneself, to leave one’s problems behind in a world of serene illusions. The increasing distance from conflict can be sensed in the development of the subsequent movements of the symphonic cycle which led Taneyev to make the association with “a symphonic poem to which three movements were joined by chance and thus created the symphony.” If traces of the composer’s subjective emotions can be felt in the second movement, then the genre images of the scherzo and the finale may in no sense be likened to attempts to struggle against Fate, as for Tchaikovsky the futility of such endeavours had been evident from the very start.