Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bartók: The Piano Concertos [Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Gianandrea Noseda, BBC Philharmonic]

Composer(s):Béla Bartók
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Orchestra: BBC Philharmonic
Label: Chandos
Catalog #: CHAN 10610
Format: CD
Time: 73:28 min

"In league with the finely honed BBC Philharmonic, these are performances vibrant in colour, vital in rhythm and detail and viscerally exciting in impact." - The Telegraph, 2nd September 2010

Receiving recordings of known repertoire always sends me on a hunt for reference recordings, and the CD of these works I¡¯ve had knocking around for ages is the 1995 Sony release with Yefim Bronfman as soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. I hadn¡¯t played this for ages, and, time restraints aside, wondered why. It is well performed and recorded and has many fine qualities, but lacks some kind of animal magnetism ¨C some of the grit and edge which is immediately apparent in this fine disc from Chandos.

There is a small heap of different recordings to choose from ¨C Bart¨®k¡¯s piano concertos have that useful aspect of being able to fit neatly onto one CD, and there are numerous options. High on anyone¡¯s list will be the classic 1959/60 recording with G¨¦za Anda and Ferenc Fricsay on DG Classics, which has legendary status but is not without its flaws ¨C the first concerto has a few ragged edges, but the Hungarian-ness of the performances is hard to beat and the sound quality surprisingly good. The up-to-date DG disc with Boulez and a variety of pianists and orchestras is also very good, but I¡¯m not always convinced by Boulez¡¯s sense of absolute control and lack of true abandonment at certain crucial moments, and the prominence of the piano on the recorded balance can be a bugbear ¨C on which subject more later. Where the Bavouzet/Noseda combination win from the start is in their sense of exuberant fun. The lively articulation and rhythmic punch of the opening Allegro moderato from the Piano Concerto No.1 swings infectiously, even where the slower moods introduce different atmospheres. The tonal texture and definition of this very fine recording gives weight and impact to almost every instrument which pops up. The strings are rather recessed however, though admittedly their numbers are reduced in this concerto. When in full flow everyone else also seems to hide behind what can come across as a rather huge piano.

Recorded balance is often an issue with concertos, and the piano is a bit too BIG here and elsewhere to create the illusion of a real concert experience. This may not bother some listeners, and I have to admit this effect is less apparent where Bavouzet¡¯s sensitive touch accompanies the stunningly rendered percussion and winds in the nocturne-like central Andante. His playing can certainly stand the spotlit treatment. You may indeed notice the percussion more than usual in this first concerto, the musicians complying with Bart¨®k¡¯s instructions to have the timpani and percussion placed directly behind the piano in this recording. The sonic detail is indeed something to behold, but the sheer liveliness and energy in the playing is what leaps out of your speakers, and the final Allegro of the first concerto a feast of remarkable playing. The Stravinskian elements in this music come through fleetingly but powerfully in this last movement and the excitement is palpable, but can you tell what the orchestra is supposed to be doing for instance between 1:45 and 1:55, or do you wonder why the winds just can¡¯t compete towards the end around the 6 minute mark? I don¡¯t mean to be picky in what is clearly a world-class performance, but I don¡¯t believe in an orchestra being dominated by a solo instrument in quite this way.

The Piano Concerto No.2 is another remarkable and forcefully convincing performance, the lighter moods conveyed with tremendous joie de vivre, and the piano balance less of an issue throughout. Stravinsky is overtly introduced here, with Bart¨®k having great fun with a speeded up version of the closing theme from the Firebird. The musicians are also clearly having fun as well, and this is a clincher for Noseda¡¯s as a top performance. The magical central Adagio is taken with an unsentimental sense of forward momentum, the beauty of Bart¨®k¡¯s orchestration and simplicity of means sufficient to create that atmosphere of uneasy night. The final Allegro molto with its energetic ¡®sabre-dance¡¯ character is another tour-de-force, and played with incredible vitality here.

Accuracy of inflection stand proud in the marvellously conversational phrases from the soloist of the Allegretto of Piano Concerto No.3, answered by an orchestra infused by resonances from Bart¨®k¡¯s own Concerto for Orchestra. This was one of the composer¡¯s final works, but in its outer movements betrays little sense of a creative soul already aware of its impending demise. The music is more direct, less intensely scored, but only the hymn of the central Andante religioso could really be heard as a musical farewell. Movingly expressed here, Noseda allows his strings some Americanese succulence in the colouring, and with Bart¨®k¡¯s own homophonic harmonies associations with Barber and others do not seem entirely inappropriate. Impassioned and spectacular playing is the order of the day here, but there are still patches where the orchestra¡¯s activity is obscured by a wall of piano. For a small experiment in mild surrealism; in the final movement, close your eyes and imagine you are sitting in the best seat in the concert hall. Then, in your mind¡¯s eye, conjure the size of the piano with regard to the rest of the orchestra ...

This is a tremendous recording and sequence of performances of Bart¨®k¡¯s three piano concertos, and as far as modern cycles go it has to be considered as one of the best. I may be oversensitive to the balance of piano versus orchestra, but to my ears it is something which casts a minor blemish on an otherwise superlative production. It wouldn¡¯t disturb me if it wasn¡¯t so unnecessary. We can hear the piano well enough: Bart¨®k¡¯s orchestration covers the bases almost everywhere in that regard, and when the soloist is semi-engulfed by the orchestra that¡¯s all part of the effect. The BBC Philharmonic deserves equal laurels here, playing out of their collective skin for Gianandrea Noseda. I sincerely hope that they join up to create an unbeatable triangle with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet again in future and I look forward to hearing the promised Ravel Concertos disc, their synergy is truly electric.

-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International