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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Bartok, Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, Stephane Lemelin, Andrew Tunis (pianos); Kenneth Simpson, Jonathan Wade (percussion), Ottawa Symphony Orchestra/David Currie, Ottawa, January 24th 2005 (BB)

Bartok's 1937 Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion is one of the great musical masterpieces, I have long thought, so this performance of its orchestrated version was much anticipated.

As to this work's origin, the scarcity of appropriate venues for the Sonata apparently prompted Bartok to orchestrate it in hopes of larger audiences. He and his wife Ditta Pasztory played the resulting Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra on January 21st 1943 - its premiere date and, incidentally, the composer's very last concert performance.

Other works were played on this cold Ottawa night, but the orchestrated Concerto was the featured piece. All things considered, though, its performance fell far short of expectations. I was struck at how Bartok's Concerto is not just the lesser work, but how very much it disappoints. Put very briefly, the edge of the Sonata's lucid, essentially polyrhythmic core is mostly lost by transferring to the orchestra some of what the soloists in the chamber arrangement discharge by other, simpler means.

If Bartok had not composed the Sonata, or if one were ignorant of it, this Concerto might stand among the great Piano Concertos of its century. But how much more can be achieved with the piano-and-percussion foursome, which is replete with rhythmic incident, musical ideas and minor climaxes. Comparatively, this far less economically chiselled, nowhere as sharply shaped Concerto verges on the dull.

The percussionists played superbly; in all other respects, things fell short of the mark. I do not mean to speak ill of the performers, who deserve their applause just for traversing this thorny musical thicket without mishap. That must be a fiendish task in either version, given the many technical minefields and the unforgiving ensemble requirements - especially since each player has such a palpable impact on the musical outcomes. These performers tiptoed around the major challenges proficiently, although, as a result, the something really sublime that this work can provide was not rendered.

Praise about proficiency sounds like a meagre accolade to give the performers, so I must own up to a final mitigating factor, and a vital one: my expectations of either version of this work have been conditioned by listening carefully to several recorded versions of it. The piece has intrigued me for 25 years, and I even had a chance to attend a performance of the Sonata in Toronto in the 1980s. But that was then and this is now, and only a miracle performance could impress, as it now competes with a new, very puffed-up ideal.

This epitome - which it is grossly unfair to foist on any performers – has the clarity of sound, artistic panache, and unity of purpose of the Kontarsky brothers' recording (on DG), yet also the near-luxuriant rubato applied by the composer and his wife in the slow movement (Hungaroton, in mono). Further, the Richter/Lobanov team's sense of controlled abandon illuminates the whole work, particularly its third movement, where an overlooked, near-circular rumbling passage is highlighted as the end approaches (a 'live' Philips). My ideal version ends with the gentle tension shaped by Bernstein (mono CBS rec. premiere), anticipating the graceful delivery by Gold/Fizdale of the work's two closing chords.

Not likely to be heard soon on any stage in Ottawa, or elsewhere.

Bert Bailey



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