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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concertos: no.1, Sz.83 [24:48]; no.2 in G, Sz.95 [28:02]; no.3 in E, Sz.119 [24:02]
Geza Anda (piano)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ferenc Fricsay
rec. Jesus Christus-Kirche, Berlin, 17 October 1960 (1), 10 September 1959 (2 & 3)
ALTO ALC1246 [77:17]

The front cover of this Alto release hails this Bartók disc as a “Legendary Recording”. In this particular instance I couldn’t agree more. Every Bartók collection worth its salt should have this on its shelves. It’s one of the gems of the 1960s DGG catalogue and was still available until recently as part of the DG Originals series. There is already a Pristine Audio issue of this very same recording on the market, transferred and restored from a vinyl LP and this has been reviewed and warmly welcomed here by Gwyn Parry-Jones.

Geza Anda and Ferenc Fricsay were both born in Budapest and they make a formidable partnership. They were leading exponents of their compatriot’s piano concertos for many years and this deep understanding and passion for the music shines through in this recording.

It’s one of those occasions when sparks were clearly flying in the studio and everything came off. Anda is completely authoritative and Fricsay and his orchestra offer superb playing to support him. This is often brutal, percussive music and the finale of the second concerto is one such movement that exemplifies the general approach. It receives a stupendous, hard-driven performance, full of forward momentum and charisma. It’s exhausting just listening to it. This is just one example of the brilliance running through the entire disc. All three concertos are delivered with complete technical mastery, razor-sharp articulation and an amazing amount of energy and sense of danger. There are also moments of great beauty and repose to be found – fine examples of Bartók’s famous depictions of night music. Fricsay and Anda create a magically dark world of longing and nostalgia here; a welcome respite from the hurly-burly of the aggressive and thrilling fast movements.

The recording quality matches the music perfectly. There is good stereo separation but very little by way of front-to-back perspective. In many ways this serves the music perfectly because we hear every detail laid bare before us with the woodwind solos shining through. The percussion is bright and clear and set forward with plenty of “oomph” to the timps and bass drum. The piano is a large one, dominating proceedings as it should. The strings are thin but the tonal quality is good. This is not the usual smooth-sounding house style so typical of DGG. The sound is slightly hard and close but full of impact and detail. For Bartók this somewhat glassy sound works very well. Brass sonorities have a slight edge but, again, this is no big deal when we are talking about Bartók. There’s something wild, sleek and exciting about what we hear. It wouldn’t have suited Mozart but it fits the bill for this repertoire. Maybe the slow movements could do with a little more warmth, especially from the strings, but that’s merely a passing observation. DGG created a winner here both technically and musically.

In summary, this is wonderful music, performed in a masterly fashion by a pianist, orchestra and conductor right at the top of their game. The sound quality is never less than good and it does full justice to the urgency and power of the performances. Even if you have other versions of the Bartók concertos in your collection I urge you to try this CD. Just for once, it really does live up to the hype of being labelled a “Legendary Performance”.

John Whitmore