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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Contrasts (1938-40) [16:47]
Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937) [25:19]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1986) [23:54]
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1966) [14:54]
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1992) [27:54]
Hidéki Nagano (piano)
Pierre Strauch (cello)
Jeanne-Marie Conquer (violin)
Ensemble Intercontemporain/Matthias Pintscher
rec. June and November 2014, Cité de la Musique, Philharmonie de Paris (Salle des concerts).
ALPHA-CLASSICS 217 [42:02 + 66:38]

Two great Hungarians are brought together, or rather one great Transylvanian and one great Hungarian, in this luxury package. Talking of great, these really are terrific performances and superlatively recorded.

Connoisseurs of Bartók’s Contrasts would never want to be without its original recording by Benny Goodman in whichever guise you find it, but clarinettist Jérôme Comte is superb, with a silky, Goodman-like tone all the way into the higher registers. Rhythmic potency is also a vital element, and the piano and violin are every bit the equal of Comte, with every nuance and atmosphere poised and balanced in the second Pihenó movement and the folk-music character of the final Sebes propulsive and compelling.

The Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion has numerous high quality recordings, and I’ve long been a fan of Martha Argerich et al in her Philips/Decca version (see review). The musicians of Ensemble Intercontemporain play this work with palpable affection and consummate skill, and I doubt anyone will find much to criticise in this recording. The performance is clean and tight without being clinical, though if Argerich/Kovacevich’s enigma is more Romantic by nature, this newcomer would be its HIP Baroque brother – eloquent in its reflection of the score rather than in its potentially more startling extremes. The chilling nocturnal quality of that central Lento is done to perfection however, and even without losing that last nth of refined control the final Allegro non troppo is a joyous romp, its witty final pages guaranteed to raise a big smile.

Ligeti’s concertos are modern classics and not unfamiliar on recordings, though their demanding technicalities for both soloists and orchestra still ensure relative rarity even amongst contemporary music performances. Ensemble Intercontemporain recorded these works for Deutsche Grammophon at IRCAM conducted by Pierre Boulez between 1991 and 1993, and it is surprising to hear how even these remarkable versions now sound a little distant and even dated when compared to these new recordings. Timings under Matthias Pintscher are generally tighter per movement than with Boulez, and the sheer colour and vibrancy of the Alpha engineering, with instruments more daringly close to the microphones but still impeccably balanced, all point towards a further evolution in these works. The Piano Concerto is a real ensemble piece, and the soloist here is warmly integrated into each family of the orchestra: here commented on by winds and brass, here caressed by strings or rhythmically punctuated by percussion and pizzicato. This is a Ligeti Piano Concerto in which you can become genuinely immersed, and I promise you will learn new things about the work and yourself each time you take it to your excitedly beating heart.

The Cello Concerto occupies different musical territory to its sister works, Ligeti’s 1960s sound-world being one that explores texture and sonority and slow harmonic tensions and resolutions that hold a unique fascination. You might think Pintscher significantly faster than Boulez in the first movement, marked in the booklet at 3:42 compared to 6:55, but this is a misprint – his actual timing is 6:58. There is plenty the sonic detail of this performance to make it sound ‘right’, and a sense of distance is maintained making it more comparable to Boulez’s DG perspective. Honours are about equal in terms of performance, through the cello is recorded a little closer and again, an easier ability to focus on which instrumental groups are doing what when everything breaks loose towards the end of the work enhances what is already a deeply fascinating musical labyrinth.

Violinist Saschko Gawriloff is the dedicatee of the Violin Concerto and I will always have an affection for his 1993 DG recording. Once again however, you realise how much detail you have been missing with the older recording, and while Gawriloff remains a match for the excellent Jeanne-Marie Conquer, this new recording has been something of a revelation. Those orchestral beats early in the first movement acquire texture and colour, and nuances and notational cells and shapes begin to make more sense than I had previously realised. Percussion effects become actual music in this recording, and the overall feel is far less random, much more precise and organised. Surreal effects and humour are all pitched head-on in this performance, those ocarinas in the second movement fabulously matched to the other instruments and serving a real musical function rather than an odd momentary interlude, and the magical spell is held aloft like an incandescent jewel in the actual Intermezzo. Once again, this is a triumph, and no Ligeti fan can consider their collection complete without these concerto recordings.

Dominy Clements



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