A natural pairing. Why has it been done so rarely?

BARTÓK: Concerto for Orchestra; Piano Concerto No. 3 – Javier Perianes, piano / Munich Philharmonic / Pablo Heras-Casado – Harmonia mundi HMM 9002262, 62:11 (2/2/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

These two works from Bartók’s years of self-imposed exile in America represent a gentler, kinder Bartók, certainly, than the brutal modernism of his first two piano concerti of 1926 and 1931. Perhaps it was the influence of the franker, more conservative American music fancier or of the American music he heard from the likes of Copland and Roy Harris that gave Bartók permission to chill out a bit once he arrived on North American shores. But there’s more than that: both works share a new seeming sense of optimism, a celebration of what Carl Nielsen called “the life force.” That same optimism informs Bartók’s final, though incomplete, Viola Concerto, with its whirling dervish of a finale.

In the Piano Concerto No. 3, Bartók exchanged gnarly chromaticism and percussive keyboard writing for a new diatonic lyricism, though of course a lyricism on his own terms. (The sound musical architecture, however, is not new: even the hard-as-nails First Concertofollowed the tenets of sonata-allegro form.) One explanation for the difference in character between the earlier and later concertos is that while Bartók wrote the first two as vehicles for his own pianism, the Thirdwas a kind of insurance policy for his second wife, Ditta Pásztory, who apparently wasn’t quite the powerhouse virtuoso that he was. As it turned out, Bartók died before completing the work; the composer’s friend and apprentice Tibor Serly wrote the last seventeen bars of the concerto following instructions left by Bartók, just as he would later complete Bartók’s sketches for the Viola Concerto. And though she finally recorded the work years later, at first Ditta was too upset by her husband’s passing to play the concerto. The premiere was instead given by György Sándor and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1946, five months after Bartók’s death.

The sonata-allegro first movement begins gently, with a beguiling, slightly chromatic melody that Bartók develops in fairly standard fashion. More memorable is the serene second movement marked Adagio religioso, which has caused some consternation among critics since Bartók was a known atheist. The Adagiosurrounds a faster section, a version of Bartók’s patented night music, complete with birdsong and whirring insects.

The last movement is sheer, joyful momentum, a rondo with lyrical interludes, swift toccata-like sections with lots of Bachian counterpoint for the keyboard, and bits in which the piano and orchestra chase each other toward a Dionysian duet for timpani and bass drum. The concerto ends with an exuberant upward scale passage in sunny E major.

I like the dynamism that Perianes and Hera-Casado inject into this last movement. They bring the folk-dance element to the fore, and they celebrate the quicksilver changes of tone offered by the different musical episodes. That percussion duet has never had more impact than it does in the hands of the Munich drummers, aided by a powerful recording. And the second movement is just as magical as the finale is mercurial. An excellent performance. I was already a fan of Hera-Casado; now I’ll watch for more from Perianes, who, besides specializing in Spanish composers, has recorded a well-praised disc of Schubert.

The Concerto for Orchestra receives an almost equally fine performance, though strangely, Hera-Casado seems to pull his punches a bit in the fugato toward the end of the last movement. This is one of Bartók’s more inspired moments, the usually pedantic fugal writing leavened by what seem to be barnyard sounds in the clucking woodwinds—sort of Bartók meets Haydn. There are other sophisticated jokes as well: The second movement Gioco delle coppie(“Game of the couples”) features a succession of duets for the winds: chortling bassoons, bubbling oboes, tipsily athletic clarinets and then flutes, and finally muted trumpets playing at the interval of the second, sounding like some loopy bugle call. Then there is the deadly serious Intermezzo interroto, whose “interruption” comes in the form of a bowdlerized version of the march theme from Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, which seems to have gotten on Bartók’s nerves when he heard it on the radio in his hospital bed in New York City. Bartók gives Shostakovich’s theme a silly swagger and then derails it with flatulent interjections from a solo trombone and finally crashing cymbals plus a big thwack on the tam-tam. No wonder the work has been an audience pleaser since its debut by the Boston Symphony in 1944.

Conductor Hera-Casado judges the piece well, bringing the right balance of seriousness (the first and third movements are all business) and fun, the Intermezzobeing especially entertaining. So except for that slight letdown in the finale, this is mostly a very fine performance, stem to stern. Again, Harmonia mundi’s impactful engineering is a big plus. Recommended!

—Lee Passarella