Commander, Assistant Conductor
Piano Concerto No 3, Sz 119
I’ve made no secret of my special affinity for Bartok. It was his music that got me seriously interested in “classical” music in the first place, and I have not yet tired of hearing new versions of any of his works. Of special interest to me are his piano concertos. I love all three, but I confess to loving the third just a little less than the first two. I also listen to it less frequently than the first two. Ironically, though, it’s the one I own the most versions of at a dozen. Since it had been a while since I had listened to some of them – and with good reason, as I would find out – I decided to give them all another try.
Generally speaking, I don’t adhere to ethnic familiarity and superiority notion; that is, I don’t believe that artists who share the same nationality as a composer have an automatic advantage in interpreting a composer’s works. (Perhaps singers have an advantage, but even there superior enunciation is no substitute for proper emotional communication.) I am becoming increasingly wary of the idea of “idiomatic” performances. When most people say that a performance is more idiomatic (and by extension, better), they merely mean that they fancy a given performance more. Really, what does “idiomatic” Beethoven sound like? On the hand you have, say, Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s take on his symphonies, and on the other you have, oh, Bruno Walter. Which one is right? With more recent composers, and of course living composers, one has the advantage of hearing interpretations played by students, associates, and friends of the composers, and even sometimes the composers themselves. (In keeping with this topic, note that this week a new budget reissue of the Bartok / Szigeti duo playing a trio of works, including one by Bartok, will be released.) Such relative closeness to a composer’s own time allows one to have a better understanding of just what the composer intended. And so it is with Bartok. We fans are lucky to have recordings by the likes of Gyorgy Sandor, Fritz Reiner, and Zoltan Szekely, among others, all of whom worked with the master. So at least we have a better grasp of what the composer wanted. Perhaps. Still, the whole notion of “idiomatic” playing begs a crucial question: can music that supposedly only sounds right one way – the “idiomatic” way – be great? Shouldn’t truly great music be malleable, flexible, and adaptable to the current artistic environment, thereby allowing artists the ability to search out new meanings, new truths in a new fashion? Rigid musical orthodoxy leads to lifeless, unimportant music making. But I digress.
Whatever the reason may be, I find that Hungarian artists – pianists especially – have an advantage over other artists in Bartok’s piano concertos. So, of the dozen versions I listened to, I decided to split the recordings into ethnic groups: first I listened to a half-dozen versions by five Hungarian pianists, then I listened to a remaining half-dozen by artists from other lands. I shall not delay: the Hungarians, as a group, are notably superior. But there’s more to the story.
The most important element of that story is the music. This concerto is late Bartok: it is more accessible, less dissonant, more tuneful, sparer in orchestration, and simpler, at least if one listens only superficially. The piano part is nowhere near as challenging as in the first two concertos as Bartok wrote this work for his second wife, Ditta, to play to earn some cash. There’s also the fact that Bartok did not finish the work. The last 17 bars were completed by his student, Tibor Serly, but Serly followed some apparently detailed notes, and in any event, this fact hardly detracts from the quality of the work. The first and third movements are more or less standard concerto fare, being relatively swift and energetic and filled with some (potentially) crowd pleasing elements. The lovely, austere second movement is slow and contemplative. Does the movement’s title – Adagio religioso – mean that the famous atheist had found god (or God, for those of you addicted to the majuscule) as he neared death? I don’t think so. While the work is not as gruff and powerful as his first two works, it nonetheless sounds like Bartok. The string writing can belong only to the Hungarian. The wind writing and use of blatting brass is so typical of his later works. This concerto has a distinctive Bartokian flavor. So, where to start the survey?
The first pianist I listened to was the logical choice: Gyorgy Sandor. He premiered the work both in performance and on record. While he did not work with Bartok on this work specifically, he did work closely with Bartok on other works, so this closeness would seem to give him somewhat of an edge. I do not have his premiere 1946 recording, but I do own his subsequent two recordings, and I listened to them in order of vintage. That means the 1958 recording with Michael Gielen and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra on Vox was first to be heard. Once one gets past the hokey recording style – piano placed far-right with the orchestra in the middle and on the left – one gets to hear a surprisingly good sounding, well played performance. The opening string tremolo is delightfully light and Sandor’s entry is crisp, bright, and swift. The big trill sounds a bit cutting and distracting, but overall Sandor keeps everything moving forward quite nicely. (Indeed, the first movement in both of his recordings is notably swifter than any others in my collection, this one coming in at under six minutes and his CBS set coming in a just over six minutes while the average is about seven minutes.) The winds and the percussion betray the composer: only Bartok writes for these instruments in such a discreet yet distinct manner. Who else would integrate a snare drum so seamlessly into the mix? One can hear echoes of former works, whether it’s the Divertimento or the Hungarian Dances, or even the other piano concertos. The whole thing is so, well, Bartokian. It’s vibrant, energetic, possessed of an easy, virtuosic air that never descends into garish show. It’s texture and sound is lighter than the previous two concertos, to be sure, but it loses none of its allure. The second movement opens with a lovely, lightly dissonant string-fest. The music is poignant and moving without being sentimental or sluggish. The clarinet is buried in this recording, but it’s not really missed. Sandor’s entry is superb. The piano part is simple on the page, but not simple in delivery: the pianist must not play it either to slowly and sentimentally or too overtly sadly. The middle section of the movement offers a bit of a break from the mood, introducing those frisky, playful winds again, with a bit more help from the brass. The climax can be quite powerful, but here it’s neither too strong nor too weak. It’s just about right. The third movement returns to a more powerful, more standard final movement. Sandor and Gielen wisely refrain from going at it too strongly. That wonderful, inimitable percussion writing returns, with instruments precisely doubling the piano part, and one can hear more lovely little details. (A little horn figure vividly recalls the Concerto for Orchestra, for instance.) Sandor plays the whole thing with zest and wonderfully variegated dynamics, and Gielen’s accompaniment is spot-on, if perhaps not as overtly Hungarian flavored as other from some other conductors. Even Serly’s ending blends in well with all that came before. So, all in all, this is a fine recording and a fine way to start.
Sandor’s CBS recording from 30 years later offers pretty much more of the same. The sound is better, and if Adam Fischer cannot lead the Hungarian State Orchestra quite as precisely as Gielen leads the VSO, he still does a credible job. One notable difference occurs in the beginning of the second movement, where the clarinet emerges as a dominant instrument. Sandor sounds, if anything, even more in tune with the piece, and that compensates for the (very) slight loss in technical assurance. The earlier version boasts greater vitality, the newer version more familiarity, and I’m glad to have both.
My next version comes from that (possibly) greatest of all recorded Hungarian pianists, Annie Fischer, in her 1955 EMI recording with Igor Markevitch and the LSO. If you hanker for a soft and gentle approach to this concerto, this recording simply will not do. Oh sure, the opening passages are appropriately light, but as soon as Annie lets loose daintiness is nowhere to be heard. The initial big trill is strong, Annie’s tone full and ringing. When she lays a forte or louder passage, one feels it. As if to off-set all of her fieriness, Markevitch offers one of the most impeccably conducted and meticulously detailed accompaniments imaginable. Listen, starting at about 5’40” in the first movement to the wondrous effect when both pianist and orchestra ascend in pitch and simultaneously descend in volume, as though they are floating away into the musical ether; listen, in the second movement, to the jaunty, playful, bird call-esque winds in the middle section; listen to the miraculously controlled dynamics in the strings. Annie, too, delivers. Hear the melancholy but never depressed or sentimental sound in the second movement and revel in her energy during robust passages. And marvel how both deliver a powerful third movement reminiscent of the first two concertos. To cap it all off, the early stereo sound is remarkable vivid and well balanced. Yes, I know that at least two other versions of this concerto with Ms Fischer are out there – one with Solti and one with Fricsay – so perhaps I should look into another one, you know, just for the sake of thoroughness, because as good as this one is, those should not disappoint.
The next recording finds a young Zoltan Kocsis teaming up with Ivan Fischer and the newly formed Budapest Festival Orchestra in the justly lauded 1984 Philips recording. The most immediately apparent trait of this recording is its forcefulness. As in Annie’s set, this is no dainty concerto. But here, Ivan Fischer’s conducting is at least as forceful as Kocsis’ playing. This concerto sounds like the logical extension of the first two, never flagging or drooping for a moment. Everything sounds so eminently Bartokian that about the only fault I can find in the first movement is the relative lack of fine dynamic gradation. But that hardly matters in the context of this performance. The second movement opens just about perfectly, with gently dissonant strings and a perfectly blended clarinet all evoking a melancholy but never sappy sound. Kocsis’ playing is tasteful and elegiacally paced, but, again, one detects no hint of sentimentality. The vigorous middle section is less playful and more mischievous and nostalgic, almost as though Bartok were looking back over some of his other works and happily interjecting elements of them into this work. It’s not sentimental sounding – it’s all quite subtle and demands strong familiarity with many of Bartok’s works – but it is there in this recording to a degree found in no others. The finale is rousing, again harking back to the prior two concertos more than to the contemporaneous Viola Concerto, for instance. Never – not once – does anything in this recording sound hard, harsh, or forced. Everything sounds just about right. Kocsis’ pianism is vibrant and colorful, Fischer’s conducting alert and simultaneously focused on both details and the overall sweep of the piece. A fine recording to be sure. Better than Annie’s? That I can’t say with assurance.
What I can say with assurance is that the next version is the finest available: the long famous and celebrated Geza Anda and Ferenc Fricsay recording from 1959 with the RSO Berlin. Everything about this recording is perfect. (Well, except the sound.) The work opens strongly, with Anda especially delivering a surprisingly wide ranging sound. There is strength and firmness where needed, gentleness with a supple diminuendo where required, illuminating some passages quite unlike any other pianist. And there’s more! Listen at about three minutes into the first movement where he delivers a powerful flourish while maintaining the most delectable legato playing. His tone here and throughout is rich, full, rounded and never harsh. Not even close. Fricsay leads about the most deliciously Hungarian sounding accompaniment thus far. He evokes the Bartok of the peasant inspired folk songs just wonderfully. Okay, so the DG engineers turn the spotlight on some of the winds here and there, but it’s quite a forgivable bit of intervention. The second movement opens in a more hushed fashion than the previous versions and almost reminds one of the slow movement of Dvorak’s 9th at times. Fricsay masterfully blends the strings (with especially useful separation of violins and low strings) and winds, and Anda’s sadder, almost funereal tone only adds to the supremely satisfying sense that the first portion of the movement is a threnody, though one is never quite sure what Bartok mourns. (His life and illness? The war and its attendant devastation? His abandoned homeland?) The middle section comes across as light, playful and almost dreamy at times. (Does one detect the slightest hint of Debussy?) But the brief respite is interrupted by the return of the dissonant massed strings, with more sadness and resignation following. The final movement reminds one of Sandor: puckish humor combines with graceful ardor to bring the piece to a conclusion. Never does anything sound hard, forced, or rough-hewn; all is delivered with a sensitive but never mushy touch. Surely Bartok would have applauded this recording. Even if he would not have I do. Everything is so exquisitely rendered here as to banish all others to also-ran status. Of course, among the other recordings included in this survey, that’s not bad. Not at all.
The final recording with a Hungarian pianist is Andras Schiff’s 1996 recording, again with Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. For those who prize SOTA sound, this is the one to own. Nothing else sounds as natural and realistically dynamic as does this Teldec recording. The amazing aural clarity and detail allows one to relish the score all the more. Fischer’s approach is, not too surprisingly, very similar to the one taken with Kocsis, but here he relaxes a little more to accommodate Schiff’s more nuanced, gentler approach. For those favoring a Bartok-Is-Brutal approach (epitomized by Stephen Kovacevich, to be covered later), this recording will not do. Schiff never sounds strained or hard, and his effortless virtuosity allows him to very carefully – some might say preciously – present his ideas. He very subtly pedals and changes both dynamics and tempi within the bar a number of times. He’ll break up some passages into less smoothly flowing pieces, clustering notes together quickly only to draw out the following notes. Overall, he removes some of the bite that others maintain, but the tradeoff comes in the glorious sound he produces. Take the big flourish: Schiff’s is big and amorphous and somewhat lacking in oomph. But it fits. Where he really shines is the second movement. His forlorn, bittersweet playing evokes little sadness but much philosophical pondering. This is no threnody; this is personal confession. Confession that others can never fully understand. The middle section lacks a sense of playfulness or mischief. Rather, it presents the bird calls and discreet orchestral contributions as a grand aural collage. The third movement, again benefiting enormously from the superb sound when the big bass drum thwacks rattle the walls, comes across as somewhat relaxed. Again, Schiff’s tone never hardens, and he never struggles to play what he wants, but perhaps the softness may (unfortunately) deter some. But listen to he dance-like passages at about four minutes in, evoking, it seems, the bitter She Dances from the 14 Bagatelles in a softer, less bitter way. Too, hear the two marvelous keyboard runs just after five minutes in, where every note is clearly defined and accented. This recording remains one of my favorites, and while it must cede top honors to the Anda / Fricsay effort, I will turn to this one time and again in the future.
With the Hungarians out of the way, it’s time to consider pianists. First up is Dinu Lipatti, accompanied by Paul Sacher and the SDR Symphony Orchestra from 1948 in what is undoubtedly the worst performance of this work on record. Pick a specific aspect of this recording – any aspect – and it is bound to be bad. Worst is the orchestral playing. The strings suck. A crude description, perhaps, but a wholly accurate one. Poor intonation and timing is not the same thing as dissonance. Sloppy winds and brass don’t help, either. (Really, what the hell happens with the brass just shy of six minutes in?) Improper entries, inexact control, missed notes: it’s all here to hear. The second movement improves things. Somewhat. Leaden is the first word that comes to mind. The third movement is nothing short of a joke. I swear it sounds as though the orchestra is playing a different work. Throughout it all, Lipatti offers little to get excited about. He plays fine here and there, but then he’ll ruin it with missed notes or lifeless playing. Despite his apparent fondness for this piece, he plays it quite poorly. This recording is proof that not all archived recordings should be released. I know why Paul Sacher fought against the release of anything other than the second movement.
Things barely improve with the next version: Peter Donohoe’s abysmal outing with Simon Rattle from 1992, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. This entire recording can be completely summed up in one word: boring. Okay, two words are better: excruciatingly boring. From start to finish, everything is too precious, as though Rattle wants to underscore everything that interests him and Donohoe just wants to blend in. “There, listen to that blatting horn!” “No, no, listen to this little passage in the second violins!” This is what I imagine Rattle must have been saying to the engineers. Donohoe, doing his duty, plays with as little color and life as one can imagine. The second movement starts in a ho-hum fashion and never once deviates from that path. The final outburst is loud, sure, and Donohoe never simply bangs away at the keyboard, and the orchestra hits all of the notes, but so what? The third is as soporific as can be. Oh sure, the forces involved attempt to generate excitement, but they fail. Ugh.
Fortunately, the next recording improves significantly over the two consecutive duds. Daniel Barenboim teamed up with Pierre Boulez and the New Philharmonia in 1967 to lay down a set that generates as much excitement as the best out there. As one expects from Boulez, the orchestra is led with uncompromising precision, every note thought out and presented within the context of the entire work. The strings sound especially nice: wiry and astringent, they never produce a nice sound for the sake of producing a nice sound. The wind and brass playing radiate precision. Boulez’s vision most certainly does not produce the most colorful or, well, idiomatic version out there, but boy does he draw one in! Barenboim’s pianism does, too. He sounds big, bold, and rich, perhaps better suited to the mid-19th Century than the mid-20th, but it works. He never simply pounds the keyboard. He never thrills to thrill. He does produce a wonderfully varied color palette and some truly lovely sounds. Together, the two big name artists produce a dandy of a recording. Note, for instance, that at 7’50”, the first movement is easily the longest of those I listened to, but it never sounds slow. One simply listens for all the aural goodies. Then comes the second movement. It opens in disarmingly beautiful fashion. Perhaps it could be more elegiac, but then, why? (Despite the beauty, one can only be impressed by that ominous sounding low string chord starting at 1’09”.) Barenboim brings greater melancholy as he maneuvers through the piece, but his tone never sounds other than beautiful. Though still astringent, Boulez extracts some lovely playing from the strings, too. The middle section is a bit straight, though a wee bit of humor appears here and there. And then there is Barenboim, presenting this as a romantic piece, as with his delectable, ravishing flourish. Is this truly “Bartokian”? Who knows? Who cares? Hey, at least the final violin outburst is nice and pungent. The finale opens with plenty o’ verve. A bit of tension gets lost after a couple of minutes, but then it returns. Overall, the movement is driven and muscular, recalling Annie and Igor’s take. That’s fine by me. Precise orchestral control married to romantic pianism: who’d a thunk it would work so well?
Next up is an all-British affair: John Ogdon and Malcolm Sargent laid down their version, also with the New Philharmonia, in 1965. Everything sounds chipper, springy, and meticulously played. Ogdon dashes off the piano part with ease, never seeming to struggle. The entire first movement sounds almost too well drilled. Spontaneity is in short supply, and while never really boring, one can’t say that this rendition gets the blood pumping. The second movement opens with refreshing directness, lacking any sense of loss or sadness. A few minutes in, after Ogdon’s well executed but unmoving entry, a somewhat pensive feeling does descend on the proceedings, but rarely do things move beyond the focus on execution. The third movement opens with a strangely halting manner, later (apparently) emulated by Donohoe and Rattle. A few passages sound perhaps a bit overwrought, but again, it’s all about execution. To an extent, this recording sounds like a dress rehearsal for the proms. It’s not bad, but it’s not a contender, either.
As promised, Kovecevich gets his shot. Unfortunately. While the brutal approach favored by Messrs Bishop and Davis may pay some (very) minor dividends in the first two concertos, the approach sounds positively horrid here. Kovacevich comes across as unrelenting and agitated. Davis hammers every point home. The sheer unattractiveness of it all comes to fruition during the big flourish: Kovacevich pounds wildly at the keys, bringing out the steel. Following that, Davis whips the LSO into an unnecessary frenzy. Everything slows down during the second movement, but only the tempi change. The final movement returns to the too fast, too furious mode. The word that most immediately comes to mind with the recording is relentless. Not once did I feel as though I was hearing what Bartok wanted me to hear. I heard only unabashed ugliness. An awful recording.
Which brings me to the last recording. Yefim Bronfman teamed with Esa-Pekka Salonen and his LA band in 1994 to lay down a cold, analytical, ultimately boring rendition of the work. (The same can be said for the first two concertos as well.) Bronfman possesses the most accomplished technique of any of the players in the survey, and it shows. He plays everything with such ease that he sounds bored himself. Where’s the challenge? he seems to ask. The first movement excitement is drained away, the emotive elements of the second missing, the third movement fun simply non-existent. Salonen offers the only attraction. He extracts more precise playing than even Boulez, and reveals even more little details. Listen, for instance, to the string sound from 5’53” to 6’01” in the first movement: it sounds like the pianissimo orchestral equivalent of a wah pedal. Still, life and energy are all absent. As a memento of sheer technical perfection, this recording is and will likely remain unsurpassed, but as a satisfying musical experience, it rates rather lower.
So, another overly indulgent survey is complete. As expected, the Hungarians own this piece. The Geza Anda / Ferenc Fricsay set simply beats all comers when viewed as a whole, but Annie, Schiff, Kocsis, and Sandor all offer invaluable and desperately needed insights. I must have them all in my collection. Moving away from the Hungarians, and away from idiomatic playing finds only Barenboim and Boulez offering anything of real value. Some – Lipatti and Kovacevich especially – offer musical train wrecks deserving of no more of my listening time. What’s to be made of this? It depends. For devoted Bartokians out there, the choices are clear. For others, the choices should be equally clear. Bartok’s final piano concerto is indeed a masterpiece, offering much of what one gets from the first two concertos, with an even more refined and subtle musical sensibility. Perhaps it’s not a thundering crowd pleaser or a vehicle for virtuosos who place showmanship before musicianship, but it captivates and enlightens. I was wrong. It is one of my three favorite piano concertos by Bartok.