Bartók in the Desert: The Art of Irén Marik

Marik, Irén

album cover

A Talent Preserved by Private Recordings

The story of Hungarian pianist Irén Marik (1905–1986) starts out seeming fairly typical. She emigrated to the U.S. in 1946 when the Soviets moved into Hungary, one of many European musicians who fled Europe to either escape the Nazis, the war, or its unnerving aftermath. Like others who were similarly displaced, she abandoned hopes of a concert career in favor of a stable, and much less visible, existence as a piano teacher. She settled in the desert, near Death Valley, California.

But Marik did not stop playing the piano. A product of Budapest's Liszt Academy and one of the very few students of composer Béla Bartók, she simply pursued music for herself. She continued to practice, often seven hours a day, and had a habit of giving informal concerts for friends. Some of these were recorded, by Marik or others, for purposes of study—legend has it that she threw away ones she felt were inferior, only to have them rescued from the trash bin by neighbors. Bartók in the Desert gathers some of her greatest home-recorded hits. Just the range of repertoire is impressive: Marik spins blithely through Bartók's Rondo No. 1 on Folk Themes, devours Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30, and plays Liszt's "Apparitions" in bursts of hyperclarity, as if she's trying to pin down an elusive ghost.

Marik told people she didn't learn much from Bartók. But she clearly absorbed some things by being in his orbit—she was part of a serious music culture in Budapest, and that culture informs the interpretations of her later years, which have the severity often associated with Hungarian pianists (notably Annie Fischer) and at the same time a more visceral streak. Discovered by Allan Evans, the founder of Arbiter Records, a label that specializes in obscure pianists, Marik symbolizes something truly rare: an artist pursuing music not for fame or fortune or other external rewards, but for the all-consuming love of it.

Genre: Classical
Released: 2004, Arbiter
Key Tracks: Bartók: "Romanian Folk Dances," Rondo No. 1 on Folk Themes. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 30.
Catalog Choice: From Bach to Bartók
Next Stop: Simon Barere: The Last Recording Sessions
Book Pages: 473–474

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