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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for 2 Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra Sz 115 (1942) [25:33]
Violin Concerto No. 1 Sz 36 (1907-08) [21:20]
Viola Concerto Sz 120 (1945) [23:23]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich (pianos), Nigel Thomas, Neil Percy (percussion) London Symphony Orchestra (Sz 115)
Gidon Kremer (violin) (Sz 36)
Yuri Bashmet (viola) (Sz 120)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Pierre Boulez
rec. May 2008, Abbey Road Studios, London (Sz 115), and March 2004, Philharmonie, Grosser Saal, Berlin.


Experience Classicsonline

This release completes the Pierre Boulez DG survey of Bartók’s major orchestral works. The piano concerto recordings were certainly received positively, and reviews of the series of concerts in London heaped praise on conductor and musicians alike.

For many years my reference for the Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra was that of the Labčcque sisters and Simon Rattle on EMI. While not definitive as a recording, the release was interesting in that it had the concerto back to back with the Sonata from which it derived. My feeling was that the original 1937 Sonata had a greater feel of originality in terms of sound palette and rhythmic interest, the Concerto version tending to diffuse some of that hard-hitting material. Bartók re-invented the Sonata in partly order to help at a difficult financial time, not long after he and his second wife Ditta had emigrated to the U.S. It was first performed in London in 1942, though not by Bartók and his wife, though they did present the work’s US premiere in New York a year later, and event which turned out to be the composer’s last public appearance.

The acuity of Boulez’s conducting and the detailed nature of DG’s recording goes a long way towards redressing the problem of Sonata versus Concerto, but something bothered me about this recording from the start. In a way, there is always something artificial about making a recording like this, and with so much going on in a piece like the Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra it must always be a challenge, deciding how to balance what in effect is an entire battery of soloists in the percussion, two whole concert grand pianos and a symphonic orchestra. Looking at the photo in the booklet, it looks as if an excess of space in which to work was not an issue, and my first remark, the width between the two pianos in the soundstage, seems to be entirely a studio invention. When the timps get going at around 3:00 into the first movement the pianos seem to recede more than one would expect. The sound of each instrument in the recording is entirely accurate, and the detail, and dynamics are remarkable: it is the unreality of the balances and perspectives which are discomforting to my ears. The centrally placed percussion is rightly forward in the balance, although the volume and presence in some of the lighter, more sparkly instruments is a little suspect. The brass is well on top of the rest of the band when they kick in, woodwinds – piccolo in particular are spot-lit and sometimes preternaturally audible, but the strings out on the wings have a tendency to vaporise in orchestral tuttis.

Don’t get me wrong, as a performance this is truly excellent, and what we do get is a recording in which most of the material is presented with truly analytical precision. There’s some serious fightin’ talk going on – menace from the pianos, punchy energy from the percussion, accurately defined shaping of the orchestral sounds. I can’t help feeling however that this has been undermined somewhat, and somehow, by the circumstances of the recording. The genuine atmosphere in the Lento is generated through the power of the music, somewhat in spite of the rather dry performance conditions – something for which the quality of the musicianship has to be given its own fair dues. For some reason the impact of the timpani is rather weak at the opening of the stunning Allegro non troppo, while at the same time the triangle is being shoved right up our collective noses. Again, marvellous playing and a terrific aural spectacle, but you find yourself sitting not in the best seat in the house, but in rather more than one hot seat at once. 

Moving from London to Berlin, and the sound perspective is more natural in the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No.1, other than the sometimes unnervingly close soloist. This early work, written while in the throes of a doomed relationship, is full of romantic lines and emotionally charged harmonies. I first learned about this work from a Supraphon live recording with Josef Suk and the Czech Philharmonic conducted by János Ferencsik, and while the recording is by no means perfect Suk’s solo violin seems to have the taught emotional essence of this music wrapped almost to perfection. I compared this to the 1990 Sony recording with Midori and Zubin Mehta, and as with Boulez also with the Berlin Philharmoniker in the Philharmonie. Midori’s is an expressive and highly charged performance, but the orchestra sounds less involved and involving, the same going for the better known Violin Concerto No.2 with which it is coupled. Nearly 20 years on, and Boulez manages to conjure a more chamber-music feel from the orchestra, although this might also have something to do with the closer-miked engineering. There are several points where the orchestra runs the risk of being swamped by the soloist, but Gidon Kremer’s narrative style of playing can cope with being heard under an aural microscope, and as ever the first movement proves to be a moving experience. Kremer digs ever deeper in the second movement, creating more of a ‘molto drammatico’ feel than the marked giocoso, although the witty characterisations in the orchestra balance this, seeming to beg the soloist to lighten up. I like Boulez’s sense of the broad sweep of this music, presented without sentimentality but allowing the musicians free rein where the scores few real outpourings allow.

The concerto that had been commissioned by the viola player William Primrose was far from complete when Bartók died, and the completion of the piece was left to his friend and colleague Tibor Serly. The Concerto for Viola and Orchestra had to be constructed from little more than a pile of sketches, and so the problems of authenticity and closeness to the composer’s intentions will always be in doubt. Serly followed the example of the Third Piano Concerto, another incomplete work in which Bartók had pared down and simplified his style both musically and texturally, but the really strongly Bartókian moments are rather few and far between. Numerous interpreters have tinkered with the score for recordings, and a strong challenger, that of Kim Kashkashian with Peter Eötvös on ECM is no exception. Boulez makes no mention of any significant adjustments, but this remains an impressive piece of music, even if not one of Bartók’s most distinctive as it stands. Yuri Bashmet is of course as skilled an advocate as one could ask for in this work, which has a demanding part for the soloist. The deeper voice of the viola suits the balance better in this piece, and the relationship between soloist and orchestra is less uncomfortable than in the Violin Concerto. The beautiful second movement, Adagio religioso is one of the highlights, with the warm interactions and sometimes startling interjections between orchestra and soloist having the kind of clean, uncomplicated quality which comes closest to Bartók. Bashmet creates a wonderful folk-like character in his instrument in the Allegro vivace third movement, and the orchestral playing is full of sparkle and wit.
With two world class orchestras and an extraordinary group of soloists, this was always going to be a top notch release, and anyone who has already taken a punt on the piano concertos need have no qualms about completing the set. Boulez has of course recorded and performed a great deal of Bartók before now, and his innate feel for that composer’s idiom and character is amply shown both here and elsewhere in the DG catalogue. I stand by my comments on the recordings, but I have no doubt there will be those who find them to be overly critical. The Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra is a grand performance despite everything, and the performance is the most important element after all. I suppose I long too much for something more akin to a concert-hall balance, but then we would have moaning that you can’t hear enough detail. The solo violin which is too loud in the overall balance is a common problem, and seems unlikely to go away despite whatever us reviewers say. Again, the performance is an excellent one, and put along with Bartók’s final statement in solo string concerto form this makes for a superb programme of some of this composer’s less commonly recorded works.

Dominy Clements



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