By a happy coincidence András Schiff was playing Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto at the BBC Proms as I was preparing this review. That would make for some interesting comparisons, given that 15 years separates these Budapest and London performances. I have long admired the Kovacevich/Colin Davis recording of all three concertos on Philips 426 660-2; it’s been a while since I’ve listened to that disc, but my abiding memory is of motoric rhythms and a big, meaty sound that’s a tad overwhelming at times. All very thrilling, but behind those obsessive ostinati and jagged chords lurks music of astonishing range and colour that deserves to be heard as well.
The presence of Iván Fischer and his Budapest band augurs well, for their version of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances – review – is rhythmically alert and very colourful indeed. The Italian Cultural Institute in Budapest also strikes me as a fine venue, with no acoustic overhang that could blunt Bartók’s spiky writing or curtail the efforts of an overworked percussion department. Most important, perhaps, is that Schiff and Fischer are generally musicians of sensitivity and good judgement, qualities that really matter in this easily overheated repertoire.
Minutes into the Allegro of the first concerto and it’s clear that Fischer’s forensic approach is already unearthing hidden details. And although Schiff’s pianism isn’t as unremittingly muscular as Kovacevich’s he still sets a blistering pace; as for the balance between piano and orchestra I much prefer the Warner perspective which – like the recording itself – sounds very natural indeed. Schiff’s galvanic dialogue with the side-drum is superbly done, woodwind interjections rising out of the mix with startling three-dimensionality.
It’s always a pleasure when musical athleticism is allied to wide-ranging sonics, the bass drum at the end of this Allegro Telarc-like in its weight and impact. But there’s delicacy too, the shimmer and beat at the start of the Andante as captivating as I’ve ever heard it. Fischer finds just the right pulse for this music, a beat that can so easily be lost in more abandoned performances. There’s an ease and naturalness here, a firm sense of scale and architecture, that’s most impressive; the Allegro molto – less febrile than Kovacevich’s – is still as quirky and propulsive as one could wish.
Sophistication – even suavity – aren’t epithets one normally applies to these concertos but that’s exactly what these performances deliver. The opening Allegro of the second concerto, with its coruscating, Petrushka-like piano part, is carried off with aplomb; as for those driving rhythms they’re impeccably shaped and controlled, the antithesis of Kovacevich and Davis. Even the eerie nachtmusik of the second movement is more darkly voluptuous than usual; indeed, the sheer presence of this recording is spine-tingling, those instrumental whoops and sly drum rolls adding to the sense of a danse macabre. The Allegro molto is even wilder; goodness, what an aural drubbing this is, Fischer aiming his punches for maximum effect.
If you’re left reeling after that assault the Allegretto of the third concerto won’t offer much respite. Not only is there an extra sparkle to the piano sound the instrument also seems bolder and more forward than before. That’s no bad thing in this most visceral of concertos, but firm control is required if the music’s not to be overdriven. As ever Schiff and Fischer calibrate their performance very well, the dance rhythms especially pliant. But it’s the colours of this concerto that shine most brightly, this virtuoso band simply splendid throughout.
One might think that Schiff – who doesn’t produce the biggest sound – would struggle in this concerto, yet he manages to convey plenty of weight and thrust when required. In the introspective Adagio religioso his handling of nuance and dynamics is masterly, a perfect foil to his more extrovert pianism elsewhere. Fischer is similarly inspired, adding to the deep sense of rapport between conductor and soloist. But this is the Bartók concerto where the piano really takes centre stage, the orchestra retiring to the wings. That said, the Stygian bass drum is still there – more felt than heard – the music’s jazzy inflexions nicely judged.
Old loyalties die hard, but for all its flash and fire the Kovacevich/Davis recording is no match for the endless subtleties and illumnations of this Warner reissue. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say these are peerless performances, alert, alive, astounding. My only regret is that it’s taken me so long to discover them.