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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz119 (1945) [22.55]
Piano Concerto No. 1, Sz83 (1926) [24.00]
Piano Concerto No. 2, Sz95 (1930/31) [27.34]
Géza Anda (piano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ernest Bour
rec. live, 26 April 1957, the Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, Germany.
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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 Concerto. 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 event available.

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 446 366-2.

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.

Michael Cookson



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