Seen and Heard International
Bartok, Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion
, 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
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
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.