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Ionarts at Large: Bartók's Piano Concerto No.3

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Bartók / Prokofiev Piano Concertos No.3, No.1 (P.), Dutoit, Argerich
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Bartók, Piano Concertos 1-3, Boulez / Zimerman, Andsnes, Grimaud
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Bartók, Piano Concertos 1-3, Fricsay, Anda
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Bartók, Piano Concertos 1-3 et al., Rattle, Donohoe
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Bartók, Piano Concertos 1-3, Davis, Kovacevich
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Bartók, Works for Orchestra & Piano, Fischer, Kocsis (oop)

Between November 13th and 18th, Béla Bartók’s Third Piano concerto had four outings in Munich – two with Piotr Anderszewski (John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra), two with Richard Goode (Kent Nagano conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra). First came Anderszewski – after Gardiner opened with Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in c-minor, op.110a. That overture of sorts was a surprise – and telling of the concerto to come: An extraordinary soft, silky sound came from those few, 31, strings, and they moved seamlessly from pianissimo to forte, and presented chamber-music clarity in velvety form. Above it soared the Largo’s solo violin.

Aggression and thrust aplenty in the Allegro molto, but for all this movement’s clash with the first of the three Largo sections, the sound was still warm, round, and rich. Woody from the violas, silvery from the violins, honeyed from the cellos; Swelling and receding at the smallest movement of Gardiner’s hands. They sounded great – not only greater than usually, but atypically so… downright romantic. They might not like to hear it, but they sounded like the Munich Philharmonic on a good day under Thielemann. Heather Catrell, leader of the second violins, offered particularly praiseworthily poised playing.

The beauty of the Bartók Third Concerto is one that offers itself casually: when all elements – orchestral and solo – fit in concert, if neither listener nor artists are trying too hard, then a lightness, a gently hidden melodiousness arises from the notes that pleases not like we might expect Bartók to please (String Quartets, Concerto for Orchestra, et al.), but in sounds that feel like a Schumann concerto (romantic), Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto (geniality). Like the essence of Mozart and Grieg distilled, rolled out, fractured and thrown up in the air again. Perhaps a little esoteric a description, but the most precise I can muster to fit the impression the clockwork-precise BRSO, the sugar-cookie soft’n’gentle Piotr Anderszewski, and the sensitively coordinating Sir John Eliot made.

To hear the audience of 2000+ hold its collective breath in Anderszewski’s solo passages – in Bartók, mind you, which is considered ‘modern’ by a good many of them – was almost as touching as the near-sacred experience of listening to that Allegro religioso. The Allegro vivace, not unlike the DSCH fast movement, was a burst of energy, but embedded in civilized sound. “Civilized” in this case not being code for “plain” and “boring”. Even Anderszewski retained an element of pearly lightness between plumbing the piano’s depth in this last movement. There are so few times one is told so many new things about a concerto that a moment like this could without exaggeration be called a revelation.

The same wasn’t quite true with Goode/Nagano playing the work two days later at the National Theater/State Opera House as part of the First Academy Concert. Dry and monochrome, Richard Goode’s dynamics in the Bartók were terraced like Bruckner rather than fluid as Anderszewski’s. His opening theme far mor dominant in the relatively more intimate and resonant round of the National Theater than his Polish colleagues’ in the large Philharmonic Hall. The interplay of orchestral voices with the piano was far less obvious, and with all my admiration for the soloist (I had last heard him at Strathmore in Mozart, Brahms, & Debussy), this didn’t sound like an interpretation based on particular affinity with Bartók. It didn’t sound like any of the impressions Anderszewski/Gardiner evoked – more like a pointillist, faux-Chinese, and not particularly Miraculous Mandarin. And like very impressive sight-reading, actually. No sheen, no shimmer, nor nuance. Nagano always gives precise, considerate cue, the entries are all there. But did he carry and support the music in this case?

Sometimes he gives way to an impression of being merely a meat-metronome, a traffic light for semiquaver rush hour. By the time the bottle of the Allegro vivace was opened, the contents had become stale. After Anderszewski’s ear-opening performance the perceived greatness of the Third Concerto was trimmed right back to mere ‘goodness’, like having gone from Anderszewski’s Croissant to Goodean gingerbread crumbs.

A pity that Bruckner’s Eight Symphony after intermission wasn’t a glory, either. Too many individual mistakes, blustering brass, uncoordinated strings, Wagner tubas in distress et al. undermined what was an earnest effort of a performance, especially in the otherwise fine, elegiac third movement.

Meanwhile I’ve always thought of Gardiner as a conductor with great ideas and great passion, but primarily as a choral conductor and despite cherishing many of his recordings very highly, never as a “great” conductor. With an orchestra like the BRSO at his disposal, it sounds like my attitude deserves serious adjustment. Too bad that Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony didn’t quite back that impression up. All of a sudden the entries weren’t right anymore, nor the sound as sumptuous, or the interpretation particularly coherent. Fortunately nothing so bad that it could have taken away from the marvelous impression of the first half.


Anonymous said...

I'm confused. Which orchestra was Gardiner conducting? You Munich in the first paragraph and it morphs to BRSO later in the review. And since when did Gardiner conduct Bartok? Sounds like the crazy I'd like to hear. He did a great job with the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony in Chicago last season.

jfl said...

"And since when did Gardiner conduct Bartok?"

Precisely. Hence my surprise.

Thanks for pointing out my error re: the orchestra. The BRSO sounded so much like the MPhil, I confused them several times. (I even congratulated the MuPhil's Program Director to that performance -- which is when he pointed out that that had not been his orchestra, at all.)