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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No.2, Sz95 (1930-31) [25:52]
Two Portraits, Op.5, Sz37 (No.1, 1905 and No.2 orch. 1911) [12:52]
Dance Suite, Sz77 (1923) [15:36]
Divertimento for string orchestra, Sz113 (1939) [24:32]
Géza Anda (piano)
Rudolf Schulz (violin: portraits)
Rudolf Schulz and Willy Kirch (violin): Walter Brose (viola): Hermann Schumacher (double bass) (Divertimento)
RIAS Symphony Orchestra, Berlin/Ferenc Fricsay
rec. September 1951 (Two Portraits); February 1952 (Divertimento); June 1953 (Dance Suite); September 1953 (Concerto), Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
PRAGA DIGITALS PRD/DSD 350108 SACD [79:18]

Praga certainly doesn’t make matters easy for itself, or the buyer. On the cover of the booklet it announces the composer and the works in font size significantly smaller than that of the conductor and then it adds a location and date. To be clear: the composer is Bartók, the conductor Fricsay and the place the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 25 May 1952 ... or, rather, it isn’t – by which I mean date and location. Praga sets this up - it’s a Centenary Limited Edition, whatever that means (the centenary is Fricsay’s as he was born in 1914) – as a recreation of the performance given in the French capital on that date, though the concert was not recorded. I assume this is the exact same programme performed on that date because whilst the notes devote three columns to ‘Ferenc Fricsay in France’ they say almost nothing about the five visits he made to the country. A programme from the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is reproduced, but that relates to his final visit years later in 1961 when he accompanied Menuhin. All a bit unsatisfactory and a warning to the unwary prospective purchaser confused by the wealth of Fricsay material now available. I won’t say that the cover is deliberately misleading but it is certainly unfortunate, an impression regrettably reinforced by the back cover; ‘Fricsay conducts Bartók’s Masterpieces in First Audition in Paris’.
 
The performances are in fact taken from 1951-53 and four separate concerts are involved, all with his RIAS Orchestra taped in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin. The Two Portraits were recorded in September 1951. The first movement is culled from his two-movement Violin Concerto No.1, written for Stefi Geyer in 1908 and only published in 1959. It’s played here by the leader of Fricsay’s RIAS orchestra, Rudolf Schulz, and very well too, as he catches its romantic spirit in excellent fashion. The recorded sound is forward and full. This slow movement contrasts with the zesty giocoso circus spirit of the second Portrait. The Dance Suite, Sz77 is cast in six movements and each one is stamped with Fricsay’s idiomatic and eloquent sensibility. Nothing is overdone, but enough is done to make this light music sound characterful and ruggedly enjoyable. The Divertimento is similarly effective, its darker colours and more serious mien coming through with great expressive commitment and structural integrity in this 1952 performance.
 
I’ve recently listened to a very early performance given by Géza Anda of the Second Piano Concerto, with Hans Müller-Kray in Stuttgart in 1950 [Hänssler Classic 94.225 - review]. It represents an embryonic stage in the pianist’s association with the work and it’s clear that it was Fricsay who guided him in his development and that this September 1953 broadcast recording can be cited as evidence. Tempi are much more recognisable as those that Anda habitually took later on whereas in Stuttgart there is a tentative approach and a lack of genuine rapport between soloist and conductor. With Fricsay Anda found his idiomatic kin. Ensemble is excellent, and the pianist’s articulation is brilliantly precise not least in the dazzling Presto section in the slow movement. There’s great animation and drive in the finale propelled by some fine percussion.
 
So, despite the awkward marketing concept, about which one should take care, the performances in good transfers – but which won’t be unfamiliar to Fricsay collectors - prove enduringly valuable.
 
Jonathan Woolf