Sony Classical Great Performances 82876-78750-2, 73:40 ****:
Recordings inscribed 1973-1987 by Murray Perahia in the music of Bela Bartok, which if taken in reasonable doses, can prove most rewarding. The recital begins with the highly condensed Sonata (1926), a percussive, often bi-tonal work that integrates folk idioms without appealing to a lyric impulse. Perahia does not play it for any sort of sentimentality. It comes across as a driven, dissonant work that does not apologize for its cluttered, primitive syntax. The eight Hungarian Peasant Song Improvisations (1920) are Bartok’s last works with opus numbers. The writing is polytonal and somewhat serial in design, contrapuntal, polyrhythmic, and, when played without pause, rhapsodic within a kind of variation framework. Difficult music, often sarcastic; but occasionally, as in the Allegro molto, visceral and exciting. The Sostenuto, rubato section looks forward to many contemporary composers. The final Allegro is kin to the First Piano Concerto and Third Quartet.
Perahia’s Op. 14 Suite (1916) makes the most charming listening, at least by conservative standards. The opening Allegretto joins an etude to a folkish motif. Another etude, staccato, makes the Scherzo fascinating; Liszt is not so far away. A modified D Minor scale defines the Allegro molto, a weird kind of dervish-dance toccata. Perahia tries to make the Sostenuto finale sound like Roumanian Gershwin. Out of Doors comes close to having a program. Again, the pungency of the First Concerto permeates “With Drums and Pipes,” which becomes quite insistent. The Andante is marked “Barcarolla,” and Perahia gives its chromatic line an allure similar to Chopin. “Musettes” with Perahia recalls both bagpipes and Scarlatti, whom Bartok recorded on the piano. The Lento section is a night-piece that calls forth birds, insects, frogs, and verdure. Another fierce toccata ends the suite: “The Chase,” with its minor seconds and tone clusters, has Perahia audibly sweating a barrage of effects, as if possessed not two but four hands.
When we do hear four hands, it is the 1937 Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, taped in Suffolk, England 7 and 9 July, 1987 with Georg Solti. While never anything less than percussive, the harmonic language simplifies itself to a dissonant variety of C Major. The ensemble gives the piece a breezy militancy, especially in the syncopated first movement. Debussy rules the second movement’s cloudy procession; Bartok had sought him out as a teacher. The last movement bubbles, a sort of rustic Easter sound of celebration, bright and witty. If Perahia and ensemble can make Bartok smile, that is something.
— Gary Lemco