Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, BB 115 (Sz 110) (1937) [26:38]
Out of Doors, BB 89 (Sz 81) (1926) [14:48]
Sonatina, BB 69 (Sz 55) (1915) [4:03]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Andante with Five Variations in G major for Piano Duet, K501 (1786) [7:23]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
En blanc et noir (1915) [15:14]
Martha Argerich, Stephen Kovacevich (pianos) (Bartók Sonata, Mozart, Debussy); Willy Goudswaard, Michael de Roo (percussion) (Bartók Sonata); Stephen Kovacevich (piano) (Bartók Out of Doors, Sonatina)
rec. Wembley Town Hall, London, UK, September 1969 (Bartók Out of Doors, Sonatina), May 1977 (Bartók Sonata, Mozart, Debussy)
DECCA 478 2467 [68:59]

This CD is of material that first came out on the Philips label and was then reissued in the Decca Originals series. The record of the works for two pianos was issued separately and became an instant classic. Kovacevich’s recordings of the solo works are from eight years earlier when the pianist was in his late twenties. While all of these are worthy, the account of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion alone would make this an indispensable disc. For many this performance has never been bettered.

The Sonata is one of Bartók’s seminal works, though not as popular for some reason as the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta composed the year before the Sonata. It has much in common with that work and at the same time looks forward to the humor of the Divertimento for Strings of 1939. The composer adapted the Sonata as a Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in 1940, but that version only dilutes the power of the original. Argerich, Kovacevich and their percussionists project all the power, mystery and humor in the music in a superb performance and in stunning sound that impresses as much as any recording today.

The other Bartók pieces, performed by Kovacevich, conclude the disc. The Out of Doors suite is from the composer’s “wild and wooly” period of the 1920s. Kovacevich clearly has the measure of this music, even if he does not displace Max Levinson’s much wilder performance from 1997 (on N2K-10028) in my affections. Kovacevich concentrates more on structure and less on the moods of the various numbers in the suite than Levinson. He is especially good in the quiet sections, such as the Night’s Music (No. 4). The early Sonatina is one of Bartók’s folk-inspired creations that could serve as an encore for the disc as a whole. This is the same music that Bartók orchestrated in 1931 and called Dances of Transylvania - performed brilliantly by Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Philips 454 430-2. While the piano original is very enjoyable, the orchestral one is that much more colorful. Kovacevich’s performance of the original sparkles.

The other major attraction on this CD is Debussy’s four-hand work, En blanc et noir. Like his other late chamber masterpieces, the sonatas for violin, cello, and flute, viola, and harp, En blanc et noir is more modern and abstract than Debussy’s earlier, more Impressionist works. As with the Bartók Sonata, it receives a terrific performance from Argerich and Kovacevich. The final piece comes between the Sonata and the Debussy suite and acts more or less as a palate cleanser: Mozart’s Andante with variations, which in spite of its short duration, is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. It brings out the composer’s genius just as effectively as some of his longer, more substantial works. Again the piano duo fully conveys the delights and the subtleties of this Mozart miracle. Here, as throughout the disc, the piano sound captured is clear and warm — in a word, wonderful.

In every way, then, this is a disc not to be missed. The production values are more than adequate. David Gutman’s notes focus on the present artists’ performances and recordings of the works and even include quotes from previous reviews. There is one inconsistency, however, concerning Stephen Kovacevich’s name. On the booklet front-cover it is listed as Stephen Bishop Kovacevich, the name he used after being first known as simply Stephen Bishop. In the booklet itself and elsewhere, it is just Stephen Kovacevich, as he prefers it now.

Leslie Wright

This disc is not to be missed.