Bartók Recordings from Private Collections is a companion to Hungaraton's extensive Bartók at the Piano set, issued earlier -- both CD sets evolved from LP sets compiled and issued in the 1980s by pianist Zoltán Kocsis and musicologist Laszlo Somfai. Bartók at the Piano gathered all of the commercial recordings made by Bartók for various companies between 1926 and 1944, and thus contains the six or so hours of Bartók's playing preserved in the best sound quality. However, Bartók was a sound recording hobbyist who was utilizing cylinder recording in his ethnological fieldwork from 1905, and in Budapest in the 1930s Bartók had a fan, poetess Sophie Török, who was as enthusiastic about recording his radio broadcasts as Bartók himself was about recording the peasants of Hungary and Romania in folk songs. Bartók Recordings from Private Collections manages to pull together an additional four hours of material from non-commercial Bartók recordings made between 1910 and 1944. The only major composer born in the 1880s to outdo Bartók in terms of sheer quantity of recordings is Stravinsky, and while the sound quality of this set is extremely variable, it shows the full range of his activities as a composer, concert artist musicologist, and interpreter.
The worst sound on the set is reserved for cylinders of Bartók's piano made between 1912 and 1915; these fragile wax cylinders only barely manage to yield their secrets. Yet careful ears will be rewarded with the opportunity to hear Bartók play his Bear Dance only a couple years after he wrote it, and fragments of the famous Rumanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56, recorded AS they were written. Apart from a scattering of radio material culled from the radio archives of continental Europe and a single English-language interview from New York in 1944, the balance of the collection is devoted to the 80 discs in the so-called "Babits/Makai" Collection, one of the most unusual and mind-bending gatherings of historical recordings ever recovered from the past. From 1936 to 1939, Sophie Török was such a hardcore Bartók fancier that she goaded her husband Mihály Babits to pay pioneer Hungarian sound recording engineer István Makai to record Bartók every time he appeared on Radio Budapest. As the political situation in Europe worsened, Makai was unable to obtain the lacquers and wax deceliths needed for instantaneous recording; he resorted to dumpster diving in hospitals for the foil pans used in X-rays, as these would take the cut. That way Makai was able to keep his promise to Mrs. Babits. In the process, Makai recorded fragments of the world premiere of Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 2, Bartók and Ernst von Dohnányi playing Liszt's Concerto Pathétique for piano, four hands, and other timeless, priceless treasures.
As these analogue transfers were made to tape in the 1980s, one wonders what the results would be like in revisiting the X-ray foils that contain, for example, the Second Piano Concerto -- the technology for recovering such early recordings has improved by a quantum leap since these transfers were done. However, one does not listen to such recordings for good sound -- one listens in awe that anything like this could exist at all. It is time travel of a most exquisite kind, where listeners can close their eyes and imagine sitting in the audience in Budapest in the 1930s, hearing Bartók play part of a Bach partita. Such experiences are really beyond criticism, but it is helpful to point out that advance foreknowledge of the pieces Bartók is playing here really helps when it comes to filling in the blanks due to the inevitable lapses in these recordings. Noisy and forbidding as it is, the recording of the Second Concerto is mostly complete, though no amount of improvement in technology is going to bring us more than the 16:21 we have here. One cannot help but be amazed, especially given the hostile and unstable nature of Hungary between the wars, that so much of Bartók's efforts as a pianist are still available to posterity as the wealth found on Hungaraton's Bartók Recordings from Private Collections.