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Bartok PCs 4776353
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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No 1 (1926) [23:25]
Piano Concerto No 2 (1930/1931) [27:35]
Two Portraits, Op 5 (1907-1911) [12:20]
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Shlomo Mintz (violin)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Concertos), London Symphony Orchestra (Two Portraits)/Claudio Abbado
rec. Chicago Symphony Hall, Chicago, USA, February 1977 (Concertos), Walthamstow Town Hall, London, UK, March 1983 (Two Portraits)
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6353 [63:33]

Many years ago, Alfred Brendel was invited to be the soloist in a European Union broadcast. Asked to play what he considered (I may be paraphrasing) the most neglected concerto and sonatas by the most undervalued great composer, he chose Bartók’s First Piano Concerto and Haydn’s sonatas. Little has changed in either respect. The Concerto is an extraordinary, powerful work, grim and obsessive, riddled with hammered repeated notes, ostinati and motor rhythms. Pollini’s performance is riveting. If there is a finer recording, I have not heard it. My collection includes Schiff, Anda, Bronfman and Jandó. I find Schiff more thoughtful and subtle than Pollini, with a little more light and shade, but I would not dispense with either.

In the Second Concerto, again I find Pollini electrifying. His tough, overpowering approach leaves me stunned. Schiff is more subtle at times; his Bartók is a little more human, less relentlessly forceful. I mention this purely in a non-judgemental spirit. As I said, I would not be without either disc. What may be controversial is Schiff’s rubato, his bending of the rhythm in the opening theme. He is unfailingly musical, without a hint of mannerism, but some listeners may find this less truly Bartókian.

The night-music middle section of this movement is hair-raising. The creatures of the forest dementedly jump around as though sensing a predator. Pollini, whose superhuman technique is well known, plays like a man possessed. The clarity in this passage is astonishing. I am no less impressed with Schiff, and I even hear an element of humour here. There are places in these fantastic works where I believe Schiff is also more imaginative. We know Bartók was a man of rare intensity, but he must have had a sense of humour, even – judging from the Concerto for Orchestra and many other pieces – a sense of fun. Pollini plays with tremendous weight and punch, but I feel Schiff commands a greater expressive range. (Schiff also plays the Third Concerto. Purchasers may regret its absence on this disc.)

Schlomo Mintz plays the first of the Two Portraits passionately, in ultra-warm, late-Romantic style. This music is almost identical with the opening movement of Bartók’s First Violin Concerto. The brief second movement is his arrangement of the last of the Fourteen Bagatelles for piano, Opus 6, a wonderfully characterful piece, superbly played here.

I favour Schiff in some respects, but I am sure nobody will be underwhelmed by Pollini’s granitic performances. Those who have shied away from his fiercely intellectual temperament may look elsewhere, but one must accept this giant of a pianist on his own terms. The recording is immediate and as technically faultless as the performances. The booklet notes are good, much better than many of DG’s fanciful or pseudo-philosophical contributions.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

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