The concert on the evening of the 26 April 1957 at the Herkulessaal
of the Residenz in Munich was a undoubtedly a memorable occasion.
For the first time in their all three of Bartók’s
piano concertos were being performed in one evening, by Hungarian
soloist Géza Anda (1921-1976) and the Bavarian Radio Symphony
Orchestra under French conductor Ernest Bour (1913-2001). Anda
programmed the Third Concerto first, followed by the First
After the interval the Second Concerto alone took centre-stage.
Thankfully, this historic 1957 concert was recorded and the Col
Legno record label are to be congratulated for making this significant
The impression must have been overwhelming for all those present
at the Munich concert. The critic Karl-Heinz Ruppel reported
that the audience was so enthusiastic that Anda had to repeat
the final movement of the Second Concerto as an encore. Even
today only a few pianists have subjected themselves to the mental
and physical demands of this triple programme. Indeed this was
the only occasion that Anda played all three in one evening.
Bartók’s First Piano Concerto was composed in
his full creative maturity in 1926 and is the most difficult,
and least melodic of the three. It is certainly dissonant and
seemingly mechanical in parts and was met with derision at
its American premiere. Yet there is an underlying cohesion
imparted by the ever-present folk-like themes and rhythms.
The emphasis on the rhythmic radiates a tremendous energy.
The rather curt thematic material appears in contrast with
the contrapuntal complexity. Bartók reduced the score’s
orchestration to its essence. In fact, in the second movement
the strings are absent, scored only for piano, winds and percussion.
In the frenetic and percussive opening movement Anda performs
with an impressive power and aggression and in the adagio provides
just the right amount of mystery and drama. The fast frenzied
dance of the closing movement is given a virtuosic, highly exciting
and urgent interpretation.
Five years later with his Second Piano Concerto, Bartók
made the score less challenging for the orchestra and with more
appealing themes for the audience. First performed in 1933, this
blends popular and light themes with the barbaric rhythmic force
that characterises Bartók’s other works of the same
period. While just as driving as the First Concerto, the second
has more expansive and recognisable themes. The opening movement
is without strings, the brass, winds and percussion carrying
it along. Here soloist Anda provides expert control over the
helter-skelter nature of the movement. The second movement starts
threateningly, unhurried with rising tension. Anda is convincing
in the divergent moods of this shadowy and mysterious movement.
He contrasts playing of charm and poetry with vibrancy and flair.
The spectacular bring-the-house-down climax in the finale is
performed by Anda with a tremendous amount of spirit, energy
and ebullience that this restless and buoyant music demands.
Most impressive is the way soloist Anda emphasises the score’s
innate savage rhythmic force.
The Third Piano Concerto is the undisputed jewel in the crown
and ranks with the best piano concertos of the twentieth century;
indeed of any era. The score dates from 1945, Bartók’s
final year. Having fled Nazi Europe he was living in New York,
sick with leukaemia, impoverished, feeling desperately homesick
and disillusioned with Hungary for aligning itself with fascist
Germany. However, this is a work full of joy.
The first movement is witty and playful, the final movement
is happy and triumphant, with a complex fugue at its centre.
The central movement is astonishing and is surprisingly entitled
Andante religioso; Bartók was an avowed atheist. It starts
quietly, like a prayer, builds in intensity and quickens to a
toccata, then falls back content and accepting. It is one of
the most peaceful and beautiful pieces of music ever written,
from a man who knows he is about to die. The final movement is
an impulsive and fiery Scherzo in which the trio section is a
fugue. All but 18 bars of the score’s orchestration was
completed before he died. His protégé Tibor Serly
completed the work; as he also did with the Viola Concerto. Anda
is truly at home in this score with virtuoso passages effortlessly
navigated and telling playing of the spiced dissonances. The
soloist displays a wonderful ability to perform contrasting episodes
of calm and turbulence with consummate expression. In fact, the
slow movement is interpreted by Anda like a humble prayer, keeping
at bay Bartók’s usual demons.
In my collection I also have the recordings that Anda made of
the three piano concertos during the early 1960s. These were
recorded under the direction of Ferenc Fricsay with the Berlin
RIAS Orchestra and can be had on Deutsche Grammophon 427 410-2GDO2
and also on Deutsche Grammophon ‘The Originals’ series
447 399-2GOR. I also have high regard for the performances from
András Schiff with the Budapest Festival Orchestra under
Iván Fischer on Teldec Elatus 0927 46735-2. Another set
of these three works that I admire is from Zoltan Kocsis with
Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Philips
The mono release from Col Legno doesn’t sound its forty-eight
years and is decently recorded. The booklet notes are pretty
good too. A wonderful recording of a historic concert, superbly
performed by Géza Anda.