I. Allegro II. Adagio-Presto-Adagio III. Allegro molto
In February 1939, Bartók was the soloist in a Lausanne performance of his Second Piano Concerto, conducted by Ernest Ansermet. He was persuaded to write a brief programme note for the occasion: "I wrote my first piano concerto in 1926. I believe it is a successful work although it is difficult – frankly, very difficult – for both orchestra and audience. A few years later, in 1930-31, I wanted to write a counterweight to my first concerto with the Concerto no. 2, which is less difficult for the orchestra, and its thematic material is more pleasing. This intention explains why most of the work’s themes are more popular and lighter. In its lightness, it resembles one or two of my youthful works."
Well, composers are not infallible when it comes to self assessment: although the Piano Concerto no. 2 can be confused with many things, one of Bartók’s early works is not one of them. And although it is true that the orchestral texture is more transparent, and the thematic material more "pleasing" than in the first concerto, we should note that Bartók makes no reference in his programme note to the piano solo – and this is no accident. Where the pianist’s material is concerned, the technical demands of the Second Concerto probably surpass that of the first. Naturally the piano solo posed no problems to Bartók himself, and he performed it publicly on 29 occasions with many of the great conductors of his era. Bartók was an exponent of the classical-romantic tradition, one of those composer pianists for whom the piano concerto genre was particularly important: these musicians could show off their wares alongside their own instrument to their best advantage, and yet within the framework of highest symphonic style. Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt composed piano parts for themselves which often – as is the case with Bartók and his first two concertos – were written down in less detail than those works dedicated to famous virtuosi. The composers after all, knew what they really wanted to say and had the technical ammunition to refine it on the night of performance. Bartók’s Second Concerto connects to this tradition in this sense, but also through its clear formal construction and musical/historical references. The opening movement, for example, is launched by a theme taken from Stravinsky’s Firebird and this allusion, indeed its undisguised pilfering, also shows how Bartók’s aesthetic diverges from Beethoven and the Classical-Romantic tradition, and gravitates back to those of Bach and the Baroque era. Thus the composer is a craftsman rather than an original artist or genius. A polyphonic manner of thinking, building on contrapuntal techniques, takes the place of harmonic thinking. For Bartók, it was not original invention of material that was now important but rather, how it was used.
The construction of the work can be described as a "bridge form" (ABCBA). Thus the fast outer movements largely share the same material, while the slow middle movement has a Scherzo at its centre. Its orchestration is not customary: in the first movement Bartók calls for only woodwind, brass and percussion; that of the Adagio, muted strings and timpanis; while the Scherzo employs strings, woodwind and a group of percussion. Only in the third movement does he take advantage of the entire orchestra. The colourful procession of moods and styles of the first movement mixes the Stravinsky theme and Bachian counterpoint, while the most differing pianistic and compositional techniques alternate, filled with an irresistible Bartókian energy. The second movement is the most important section of the work: the strings produce other worldly static chords piling intervals of fifths upon one another, maintaining a dialogue with the piano – it is an evocation of solitary man and nature at night. Suddenly, the piano launches into frantic motion, the central section became for terrain of vibrating colours and terrifying hallucinations, which suddenly again merges into an Adagio played by string orchestra. The careering final movement is a typical piece from the Bartók oeuvre: using the same theme from the first movement, it is an Allegro barbaro for large orchestra.