BARTÓK Piano Concertos Nos 1-3
If you’re after a disc of Bartók’s piano concertos that maximises on the music’s drive, elegance and sparring potential, then you could hardly do better than this ear-catching new production by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the BBC Philharmonic under the spirited direction of Gianandrea Noseda. Rarely have I encountered a reading of the First Concerto where, in the first movement especially, the sense of instrumental interplay is so consistently vital. The quasi-waltzing second movement mesmerises much as Donohoe and Rattle did back in 1992 (EMI, 11/93 – nla) with a fierce, militaristic-sounding central climax; then, in the finale, there’s the tickly fugato (at 1'25") that leads into what you could call the nearest thing in the concerto to a “big tune”.
The Second Concerto gives Anda, Kocsis, Schiff, Donohoe and Andsnes a fair run for their money, with plenty of air freshening the pages of the first movement, where in the wrong hands the warring combination of brass, piano and percussion can overwhelm in quite the wrong way. Not here though. In an exemplary and often revealing booklet-note Paul Griffiths quotes Otto Klemperer who once described Bartók as soloist in the same work, highlighting “the beauty of his tone [and] the energy and lightness of his playing [which] were unforgettable. It was almost painfully beautiful”. These words reminded me of Bavouzet’s playing of the Second Concerto’s last minute and a half or so.
The quite different Third Concerto is nimble, transparent and, in the central Adagio religioso, serenely beautiful. And yet Bavouzet doesn’t play down the music’s earth-derived grandeur (those lavishly embellished chords in the first movement) or its drama. The finale is enormously exciting, both from him and Noseda’s BBC Philharmonic. Indeed, he has the measure of all three works and I would rate his CD alongside the very best, ie Anda with Fricsay (best in No 2 – DG, 5/95R), Donohoe with Rattle (ditto No 1) and Kocsis with Iván Fischer (Philips, 12/95 – nla), not forgetting Grimaud and Boulez in the Third Concerto (DG, 4/05), another exceptional performance.