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Bartok PCs 4579092
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Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No 1
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No 2
Two Portraits, Op 5
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Shlomo Minz (violin)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
rec. Symphony Hall, Chicago, USA, February 1977 (Concertos); Walthamstow Town Hall, UK, March 1983 (Portraits)
Presto CD

When I was young, certain composers’ names told me, irrationally, that I would not like their music; that included Wagner, Webern, Berg, Schonberg and Bartók. Only much later I came to appreciate them, and found their music perfectly acceptable. That certainly is the case of Bartók, whose music I could not live without. I think I had felt that hard-sounding names – unlike Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Chopin and so on – signalled music too modern for my young ears. Once I told my mother I did not much like chamber music. She replied that it was an acquired taste she was sure I would acquire. How right she was – and the same went for these modern composers. Nothing, for example, could be more uncomplicated and wonderfully folk-like than Bartók’s Six Romanian Folk Dances, and I absolutely adore all his string quartets.

Had I, as a young boy, heard his first piano concerto before those folk-inspired pieces, I may very well have felt justified in my idea that the music was too modern for me. The booklet notes say that “Bartók’s style remains alien to the ironic taste for ‘pastiche’ and ‘square-cut music’ in its harsh, severe, rigorous conception”, and characterise the music as part of “a quest for violent sonorities, biting harshness, combinations of sounds conceived more as blocks than chords”. So, Bartók was already exploring the “potentialities in the relationship between piano and percussion”. Now, of course, it is that very style that I find so exciting and different. I wonder how it went down when it was first heard, if the reception of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (which caused a riot at its 1913 première) was anything to go by. Bartók’s piece is even more strident and unforgiving than Stravinsky’s, and surprises to this day. It is unrelenting in its percussiveness, and takes no prisoners throughout its 23 minutes. The pianist’s abilities are taxed to the limit. The concerto was a truly astonishing achievement for 1926, and its effect is equally remarkable today.

Bartók recognised the difficulties, and decided to make his second concerto easier for the orchestra and the public. He wrote that he wanted to introduce “more pleasant themes”, but, as the notes point out, “there are no compromising concessions to ‘easy music’”. We hear similarly strident chords and the same percussiveness, though perhaps a little less so than in the first concero. Bartók, always a seeker of new forms of expression, has a really unusual idea in this concerto. He omits the strings in the first movement, and the second movement uses no woodwind in the first or third sections. That is why when the entire orchestra is called upon to play for a prolonged period in the last movement, there is a very dramatic impression.

If you prefer full-blown romanticism, Bartók’s music will be far too uncompromising. Give it time, however, and its brilliance may disarm you. His work is most energising and exciting, and as enjoyable as that of other greats of classical music.

Maurizio Pollini and Claudio Abbado did not record Bartók’s third piano concerto. The necessary filler is Two Portraits: One Ideal and One Grotesque. The first portrait is all sweetness and light after the relentless piano concertos. The very short second portrait gives the middle finger to the first: it uses the same theme in a typical Bartókian discordant way. Shlomo Mintz injects just the right amount of finesse, and has a beautifully sweet tone in the first piece.

Some critics have written that they regard Pollini as one of the greatest living pianists, but they find a lack of playfulness in his two performances, especially in the second concerto. These are both very serious works, so I imagine it could be hard to make them playful. The Gramophone magazine once wrote that Géza Anda, Zoltán Kocsis (with conductor Iván Fischer), Peter Donohoe and Andras Schiff did put some cheer into the three concertos they recorded, Anda the most of them. If you want all three, this issue is not for you, but it still has much to recommend it because Pollini’s playing is first-rate.

My only other recording, which includes the third concerto, is by Jenő Jandó, that stalwart of the Naxos label. In its early years, it employed little known musicians, who gratifyingly have proved themselves over the years. Jandó has turned out to be a truly fine pianist with a wide repertoire. Pollini’s 1979 recording precedes Jandó’s by 15 years. That may be why Jandó’s sound is somewhat warmer, and that helps take the harshest edge off the otherwise hard sound of the first concerto, whose stridency was Bartók’s aim.

I am not a critic in the same mould as any whose livelihood depends on it, so I cannot truthfully say that, had I only heard Pollini’s rendition of the first two concertos, I would have been able to hear a lack of playfulness in the performances. I often think myself fortunate in that regard, and remember what the composer Gordon Langford told me. He was often disappointed in a performance because his ear was much more finely tuned and could hear when a musician (particularly brass, since he was a former trombonist) was even the slightest bit off key. He envied people like me who were unable to hear what he could.

If you are happy to own a recording of only two of Bartók’s three piano concertos, then this reissue will deliver in many respects. Pollini is a formidable player, a match for all the difficulties Bartók’s music presents to the pianist. You get another view of the two works.

Steve Arloff

Published: October 5, 2022

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