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Béla Bartók: Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra – Violin Concerto No. 1 – Viola Concerto
Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard (pianos), Gidon Kremer (violin), Yuri Bashmet (viola), London Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez (conductor)
Recorded at the Groser Saal, Philharmonie, Berlin (03/2004) and Abbey Road Studios, London (05/2008) – 69’76
Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 7440 – Booklet in English, German and French

Equidistant between Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center is one of the residences occupied by the ailing and impoverished Béla Bartók in his final days. The flashy arts complex up the street wasn’t built for twenty years after Bartók had passed. In fact, the area was quite downtrodden and even dangerous in the immediate post-war period. From his reduced circumstances, the composer tried frantically to make money for himself and his young wife and pianist partner Ditta Pasztory. Out of this desperation came two undisputed masterpieces, the Piano Concerto No. 3 and the Concerto for Orchestra. The resulting detritus from the same period is the main content of a new recording under the supervision of Pierre Boulez.

The Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion is a phantasmagoric sonic exploration, but it is not on this new CD. Instead, we have the arrangement that Bartók threw together to perform with the New York Philharmonic under fellow Hungarian Fritz Reiner. It may have put some much appreciated goulash on the table, but the Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra can now only be classified as minutiae.

Pianists Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard perform extremely cleanly and the London Symphony percussionists have every bang and tittle in place, although the recording engineer must be a refugee from the hip-hop world, as the drums are often ridiculously louder than the other instruments on display. The vestigial orchestral part is just unnecessary creperie. Pierre Boulez has certainly mellowed over the years (haven’t we all?), but a kinder, gentler Bartók is hardly as eloquent as the originally barbaric one.

The Viola Concerto is largely the work of Tibor Serly, who took Bartók’s sketches from the hospital and attempted assiduously to recreate his master’s voice. The resultant work is a bit of a mishmash, presented occasionally because there are not too many other tours-de-force for this alto fiddle beyond Harold in Italy. Yuri Bashmet does a fine job and the Berlin Philharmonic provides solid grounding, but give me one of the Hindemith pieces for this particular combination of soloist and orchestra any day.

Members of my generation will remember that sometime in the late 1960’s the great Bartók Violin Concerto, with its splendid translation of Tristan und Isolde to contemporary vocabulary, was renamed the Concerto No. 2 with the popularization of a buried bastardized blending of one of the old Two Portraits with some original Bartókian material, all of which, it was revealed, was written before the composer penned the final version of the portraits. The resultant Violin Concerto No. 1 has never had a more effective advocate than Gidon Kremer. He strikes just the right acoustic combination of wonder and precision, romanticism and pointillism to convey the unique sense of mystery of this unjustly neglected work. Here the new sentimentality of Mr. Boulez is not out of place and thus the partnership works very well. Certainly this is the finest performance in this compendium. Additionally, one positive feature of having this piece on CD is that we now know that it takes Bartók an excruciatingly lovely 5 minutes and 7 seconds to resolve the opening chordal progression of the first movement.

This recording is the conclusion of a series of Bartók concertos and may be best purchased as a companion piece to the other, more famous pieces. Definitely not for beginners or for converting others to the cause of Béla Bartók, this is really a disc only for the most anal retentive cognoscenti.

Fred Kirshnit




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