This brilliant program from Belgian pianist Jan Michiels is a must for anyone interested in Bartók or in the neo-Baroque elements of the new musical languages of the early twentieth century. It's well known that the rediscovery of early music proceeded simultaneously with the musical revolutions of the era, and that there was a good deal of influence running from Renaissance and Baroque music toward the contemporary scene. This disc gets inside that influence and explores it in greater depth than do recordings of a single piece (like, say, Stravinsky's Pulcinella) that have early music content. Bartók's admiration for Bach is familiar, but can the same be said for his attitude toward François Couperin? Girolami Frescobaldi? They're both here, and anyone who doubts the relevance of Couperin to Bartók should sample track 13 of this album.
Michiels alternates Bartók piano pieces (the Dance Suite is heard in the composer's piano transcription) with Baroque keyboard works, some of them (the works by Frescobaldi and Henry Purcell) originally for organ, others for harpsichord. All the Baroque pieces were known to Bartók; he played, edited, and/or transcribed them. Of course they would have sounded very different in the 1920s as compared with performances today; Michiels comes up with a reasonable facsimile of a 1920s or 1930s performance, with lots of pedal, rubato, and Romantic expression. And the links with Bartók's own music come though loud and clear -- the intensely chromatic treatment of polyphony in Frescobaldi, the uses of pedal points and just the incredibly imaginative pictoriality of Couperin, the balance and mathematical intricacy of Bach...make your own list. All are heard in the Bartók pieces paired with the Baroque works, and by the time you get through this disc you'll hear Bartók in a whole new and more tradition-oriented way. An innovative and well-thought-through release.