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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concertos: no.1, Sz.83 [25:20]; no.2 in G, Sz.95 [30:56]; no.3 in E, Sz.119 [24:30]
Geza Anda (piano)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ferenc Fricsay
rec. Jesus Christus-Kirche, Berlin, 17 October 1960 (1), 10 September 1959 (2; 3)

These recordings by Anda and Fricsay seem to have been the first ‘modern’ ones of the Bartók piano concertos - nearly fifteen years after the composer’s death. That is hard to get your head around today, when Bartók’s reputation as one of the major figures of the 20th century is totally secure. Back then, he was seen as an unremittingly ‘tough’ composer, many music-lovers lining him up alongside the Second Viennese School in terms of inaccessibility.
Nowadays, we see him, perhaps, as the essential link between those rigorously serial composers and other, more approachable figures, such as Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Martinů; and these concertos demonstrate that perfectly. All three have their gritty, uncompromising side yet they are packed full of wonderful invention, rhythmic, melodic and harmonic, as well as taking a fresh approach to the relationship between soloist and tutti.
The Third Concerto is, at least on the surface, the most straightforward. Certainly the harmonic language has been toned down in terms of its use of extreme dissonance, a trend you can see in the other works of this late, American period of Bartók’s career. He died without finishing the work; however, it’s not like the Viola Concerto, for which he left only sketches, for the Third was complete except for the last few bars, which have been convincingly added by Tibor Serly. Though the outer movements are airy and entertaining, the very beautiful Adagio religioso is full of pain and a sense of aching nostalgia.
The first two concertos are much more radical. Both inhabit the uncompromising world of 1920s modernism, and one notes that the First Concerto was composed just after the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, which had caused a ‘scandal’ nearly as great as that of The Rite of Spring. In this First Concerto, the composer specifically asks that the percussion (including timpani) are placed at the front of the orchestra, close to the soloist. The work’s emphasis on wind and percussion sonorities, rather than those of strings, is shared by the Second Concerto, in which the strings don’t play at all in the first movement.
What of these recordings? The actual sound quality - despite re-mastering (see below) - remains somewhat harsh, even garish at times: try the opening of the second concerto, tr. 4. Certainly more recent recordings - Pollini on DG is possibly the prime example - are able to exploit more fully the wonderfully atmospheric scoring in the slow movements of the second and third concertos. This cannot devalue Anda’s sense of total authority; he simply has the exact right approach, austere yet passionate, glitteringly brilliant yet never superficially ‘flashy’. He is ably partnered by Fricsay. Together they produce a stupendously thrilling account of the final Allegro molto of the second concerto, a roller-coaster ride of bracing wildness. There are one or two mildly scrappy moments. One example can be found at the beginning of the finale of the Third, where Anda’s speed off the mark seems to take Fricsay and his players slightly by surprise. That almost adds to the sense of impetuosity that pervades these wonderful recorded performances. In the slow movement of the Third the impassioned playing of Anda and the BRSO strings completely transcends the sometimes ungrateful recorded sound.
These recordings had been available on DG until fairly recently, and were widely admired. The present issue has been re-mastered by Andrew Rose, who has used various techniques to enhance the acoustic ‘ambience’, to eliminate wow and flutter, and improve one poor edit. He seems to have done a fine job, making this a most desirable possession for admirers of these great masterpieces of twentieth century music.
Gwyn Parry-Jones