BARTÓK Concertos for Piano and Orchestra
Much as one would like to tout the new as the best, there are some older recordings where a very special chemistry spells 'definitive', and that pose an almost impossible challenge to subsequent rivals. Such is this 1959 recording of Bartók's Second Piano Concerto, a tough, playful, pianistically aristocratic performance where dialogue is consistently keen and spontaneity is captured on the wing (even throughout numerous sessions). The first movement is relentless but never tires the ear; the second displays two very different levels of tension, one slow and mysterious, the other hectic but controlled; and although others might have thrown off the finale's octaves with even greater abandon, Anda's performance is the most successful in suggesting savage aggression barely held in check.
The Third Concerto is again beautifully moulded and carefully thought-through. Moments such as the loving return from the second movement's chirpy central episode (track 8, 5'54") are quite unforgettable, while the finale is both nimble and full-toned. The First Concerto was the last to be recorded and is perhaps the least successful of the three: here ensemble is occasionally loose, and characterization less vivid than with, say, Donohoe and Rattle. Still, it is a fine performance and the current transfer - which is both richer and better focused than its two-CD Dokumente predecessor (5/R9) – has been lovingly effected. To take just one tiny example, the cymbal crash 0'22" into track 1 (the First Concerto's first movement) seems to have been been re-edited so as to correct an ugly acoustical cut-off.
As to the best rivals, Kocsis remains the preeminent virtuoso but doesn't quite match Anda's charismatic personality (at least he didn't at that stage of his career); Sandor has bags to say but his accompaniments are under-characterized; Donohoe and Rattle are thoughtful, intelligent and particularly impressive in No 1 ; and then there is Andor Foldes's expertly driven 1948 recording of No 2 (surely a prototype for Anda's) and Bernathova's breezy account of No 3, a personal favourite but not ideally coupled. I quote these alternatives for the sake of completeness - but if the 'bottom line' has to be a single recommendation, then this is it.