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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Racines
Two Romanian Dances [8:39]
Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs [11:10]
Out of Doors [15:29]
Fourteen Bagatelles [24:01]
Florent Boffard (piano)
rec. 2018, MC2, Grenoble, France
MIRARE MIR410 [59:00]

French pianist Florent Boffard is a considerable specialist in the key 20th century modernists and contemporary music. He has played Boulez and Ligeti premieres. On disc he is most familiar to many in Bartók, not least for partnering Isabelle Faust in her outstanding discs of his violin music. Here we have a very satisfying programme of some of the most significant solo piano works of the Hungarian master. It has but one flaw, and it will be as well get it out of the way. There is a large number of short piano pieces by the composer, so the miserly collector will note that the playing time of just under an hour might have been a bit more generous. That complaint has to be mitigated though by the observation that everything we have here is superbly played. If the disc lacks a little in quantity, it lacks nothing in quality.

The Two Romanian Dances make a more substantial opening than their title suggests. They are based on ‘invented’ folksongs (a necessary oxymoron in writings about Bartók, it seems), deriving their driven percussive manner from the rhythms of the real thing Bartók had collected. They are exuberantly played, and launch the recital almost with a sense of fanfare – welcome to the three worlds of Béla Bartók, folksong collector, composer and pianist.

Bartók distinguished between the types of folksong he found in Eastern Europe, and the Romanian Dances (or their models) exemplify more the straightforward ‘tempo giusto’ songs. The Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs incline more to the declamatory, recitative-like type he called ‘parlando rubato’. Boffant is a master of the manner, of piano playing as story-telling, drawing us in to this world of real folk songs, which are usually heard in this work in their entirety, but wreathed in composed (hardly ‘improvised’) settings and elaborations that somehow reveal their essence.

Out of Doors is from 1926, the key year of Bartók’s compositional career. It is one of his great masterpieces in any genre, not least its highly original ‘Night Music’, the fourth of the suite’s five movements and a frequent item in his own recitals. The nocturnal manner was a central aspect of Bartók’s work, reflecting his love of nature and the creatures that inhabit the night-time. The pianissimo cluster-chords, the chirrup of the three-note grupetti, and the crepuscular atmosphere are all superbly delineated by Boffard, who plays with great concentration and super-sensitive refinement. The magnificent playing of that early harbinger of the mature manner, the Fourteen Bagatelles, sets the seal on a superb recital disc.

The sound is warm and satisfying, the bite of the harmony always present without becoming too aggressive, and the piano sound in the more percussive sections never hardens into the brittle clangour of some older recordings of this music. There is a short but helpful booklet note on the music itself. This is an outstanding Bartók recital, an ideal starting point for anyone new to this repertoire, and quite possibly the best playing of this music on disc since the great intégrale of Zoltán Kocsis (Philips, 2013) – still the best bargain set of 20th century piano music. Even if you own that, you will not regret acquiring this disc also.

Roy Westbrook



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