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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion & Orchestra [26.26]
Victor BABIN (1908-1972)
Concerto No.2 for 2 Pianos & Orchestra [25.54]
Piano Duo Genova & Dimitrov (Aglika Genova & Liuben Dimitrov)
Percussion Dobri Paliev & Plamen Todorov
Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Yordan Kamdzhalov
rec. February/May 2015, First Studio of Bulgarian National Radio
CPO 555 001-2 [52.22]

Béla Bartók composed his Sonata for two pianos and percussion in 1937 and took particular pains over its instrumental construction. In particular he was concerned to use the second piano to help counterbalance the 'hard' sounds of the percussion. Presumably he was satisfied with the result and the work became a quite regularly played item of his output. In spring 1940 he and his wife Ditta emigrated to America to escape the fascist activities of the Hungarian government and at that time he received a commission to create a concerto from the sonata. It seems that he carried out the task somewhat listlessly and the new transcription did not receive its American premiere until 1943, with his wife and himself as pianists and Reiner conducting the NY Phil. Bartók was in need of income during the whole of his American exile and shortly before the premiere his contract with Columbia University had been terminated ('sacked', he said) so I assume that he was glad of the fee for the arrangement. In addition, he had been unwell for some months prior to 1940, with the onset of undiagnosed Leukemia, which must have had some effect on his energy, and as I suggest above, he probably didn’t feel that the work needed further embellishment.

I approached my encounter with this recording with some interest, not only because Bartók is one of my favourite composers, but he was also a master of the orchestra and I have never heard the piece. Of course, I have listened to the original many times and I have to confess that I do not love it, but I rather expected that an orchestration by the composer would make it much less monochrome and that I would greatly enjoy a listen. However, when the CD arrived I consulted a recently acquired biography of Bartók (Béla Bartók by David Cooper, Yale University Press) and read descriptions of it which led me to constrain my expectations. It contains musicological comments which state that whilst some orchestral colour is added, it is barely accurate to describe it as a concerto, because there is no orchestral interplay between the pianos and percussion.

There is an interesting anecdote in the biography relating to the first performance. Fritz Reiner, a man of somewhat despotic methods as far as his orchestra were concerned (these were the days of conductors in America being able to fire players on the spot), angrily asked Bartók “what on earth had you been doing by deviating dramatically from the score at one point. You must have known that doing so would make it almost impossible for the orchestra to follow you”. Bartók blandly replied that a percussionist had made a wrong entry which had instantly sparked a fresh musical idea in his mind, and he had felt the overwhelming need to try out his new thoughts there and then! Reiner’s response is not given.

I found the recording to be very full bodied as far as the pianos and percussion are concerned, but the orchestra seems to be backwardly balanced in relation to them to a very significant degree. Perhaps this is Bartók’s intention, for I detect an occasional woodwind entry filling in a momentary silence and ppp strings producing an occasional whisper. It is only as climaxes are reached that the orchestra makes much of a contribution and has impact, for example at 9'30" into the first movement, and it is certainly true that purely orchestral passages are conspicuous only by their absence. I fear that the entire piece makes a most unsatisfactory listening experience, despite the vigorous and committed approach of the pianists and percussionists.

Its partner on the CD is a double piano concerto, and until I read the booklet, I did not realise that its composer, Victor Babin was one half of the famous Vronsky and Babin piano duo. The partners premiered it in 1957 with the Cleveland orchestra under George Szell. It is immediately apparent that here we have a 'true' concerto, and unusually one in four movements, where the orchestra plays a complementary and supplementary role to the pianists. The recording supports all concerned in as full-blooded a manner as anyone could wish.

The sleeve note makes great play of the concertos' neo-classical attributes, and since I usually react quite coolly to neo-classical pieces, I didn't expect much, however it may be that the colour in the orchestra, so lacking in the Bartok, made me more receptive, but I enjoyed the first movement. Lasting just six minutes, this moderato movement opens with a short orchestral statement gently responded to by the pianos. This alternation is repeated twice - subtly varied - and then during on the third orchestral statement the pianos join the orchestra, quietly at first then suddenly becoming powerfully engaged in a percussive march that reminded me irresistibly of Prokofiev. In fact, I found myself consistently thinking of the marvelous first movement of his second piano concerto. It is, of course, much longer than the short movement here, and also contains more dynamic contrasts and better melodic inspiration, but to my ears the resemblance remains. The second movement is a propulsive, highly rhythmic affair that once again reminds me of Prokofiev in jaunty percussive mood. Melody is less to the fore and I found the insistent staccato, sometimes quite lightly accompanied by the orchestra, to be less than totally involving. However, the composer manages to make the frantic dance of the closing pages quite exciting - madcap is the phrase used in the booklet. The third movement, at four minutes, is the shortest and is designated molto sostenuto,intimo e calmo. It is the least Prokofiev-like movement, beginning with a calm, rather static theme, first on lower strings, then elaborated on the higher strings, eventually joined by horn, then flute and finally clarinet. A very short section for piano follows, and then a brief outburst for full orchestra lapses into the static form of the opening. I find the movement disappointing, and it would have been better if Babin had managed to create a more memorable theme on which to base it. The concerto is terminated by a rather predictable movement of considerable drive, although as in the second movement, the staccato passages overstay their welcome, and there is too much reliance on clattery piano writing for it to have much interest. Having said that, at about six minutes in, the orchestra becomes briefly and rather ominously dominant, only to be interrupted again by the chattering pianos, before they re- combine to create a short and effective ending. I can easily imagine attending a live performance of the entire work and being won over by the sheer physicality of it all, but for home listening, I find it less than engrossing.

I have no doubt that each work requires considerable stamina from both pianists and the Genova & Dimitrov piano duo give it their all. As I mentioned earlier, the recording is full, giving ample presence to both pianos, and in the Babin, the orchestra as well. The Bulgarian band is well guided by conductor Yordan Kamdzhalov and play in a committed manner. The booklet is concise (unlike some from CPO) and informative, although the description of the movements of the Babin becomes a little confused at the start.

Jim Westhead

 

 




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