BARTOK: The Three Piano Concertos – Geza Anda, piano/ Berlin Radio Sym. Orch./ Ferenc Fricsay – DGG/Pristine Audio

by | Jun 26, 2013 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BARTOK: The Three Piano Concertos – Geza Anda, piano/ Berlin Radio Sym. Orch./ Ferenc Fricsay – Pristine Audio CD-R PASC 388, 78:46 [avail. in various formats from] ****:

Andrew Rose resuscitates the famed 1959-1960 DGG stereo inscriptions of the Bartok piano concertos as performed by “the troubadour of the piano,” Geza Anda (1921-1976), and his Hungarian conductor comrade-in-arms Ferenc Friscay (1914-1963), a past master of the Bartok style. The immediate effect of Mr. Rose’s ministrations becomes abundantly clear from the outset, with the Concerto No. 1 having assumed a pungent definition and luster previously denied it.

We may recall that the First Concerto (1926) was conceived as a touring vehicle for Bartok’s own considerable prowess. Bartok admitted that it was “a difficult work for the orchestra and the public,” to say nothing of the demands it makes in the keyboard soloist. The piano scatters percussive notes and clusters rather than presents them as melodic content. The outer fingers of the hand must perform at a keen pace, maintaining a pulse that somehow imparts to the relatively chaotic concoction of notes a sense of sonata form, even to the point of that one could claim E (if not E Minor) as the home key. Anda and Fricsay weave a marvelously contrapuntal if eerie fabric for the Andante, in which eldritch sounds between piano and woodwinds emerge in various keys over a piano ostinato.  That the music anticipates the later Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion is old news. Anda heats up the surface with frenetic energy for the Allegro molto finale, much in the spirit of the Allegro barbaro. When the trumpet and winds chime in, we feel that Bartok has been listening to the chirrups and sound innovations of his contemporary Stravinsky, although here cross-fertilized by Bulgarian stomping rhythms. Fricsay wends his own way through Bartok’s knotty metrics with a sure hand, the trumpet, battery, and piano in perfect harmony.

The 1931 Piano Concerto No. 2 (on G) projects from the first a blast of bright colors, both furiously quick and densely packed. The texture of the opening plays like a concerto for piano and winds, with added snare, kettle drum, and triangle. Anda flies through the first movement Allegro in the manner of a reckless acrobat, hammering tone clusters and fistfuls of notes, the octaves ringing in clarion peals, like demented bells. When the texture does thin out, scherzando, the light filigree shines in sinewy pearls. The RIAS trumpet section proves equal to the task, and the symphonic sound already anticipates the later Concerto for Orchestra even while it borrows its sonority from Richard Strauss.

The velocity of the last pages quite gallops off the radar, with Anda’s virtuosic scales surpassing what Chopin and Liszt require of their champions. Bartok provides another version of an extended arch form in his “night music” Adagio, which will soon frame an aggressive Presto trio.  The dark intimacy of the slow outer sections reminds us of the power Fricsay – given in the dialogue of keyboard and tympani – could draw from his responsive ensembles, especially the strings. When the (scherzo) Presto kicks in, Anda must lie both his (large) hands flat over the keyboard to accomplish the wild tone cluster-chords Bartok demands. Again, the lighter side of the writing provides its own kind of leggierissimo etude, with diaphanous string work to accompany Anda. Like the later 1938 Violin Concerto, the last movement recasts materials from the first, though the “cyclic” element remains more motoric than melodic. Acerbic, almost “abusive” pounding from piano and tympani sets the tone of the Allegro molto, the horns in regal ceremony. The tone becomes somberly Hungarian, rather Magyar, in color, a primitive war dance.

The 1945 Third Concerto in E Major casts a gentler, more lyrical aura than its acerbic predecessors. Pianist Geza Anda gave the Chicago premier of this work with Fritz Reiner (20-21 March 1958). The writing for the opening Allegretto movement, although rhythmically active, remains transparent, with the keyboard part requiring the hands to move in octaves set in contrary motion. The urge to simplicity of expression parallels Bartok’s fascination with late Beethoven; and we might find echoes of Beethoven’s Sonata in E, Op. 109 and F Major Quartet, Op. 135 in this score, which literally occupied Bartok up to his death, with his having completed all but 17 measures. Beethoven does indeed figure more overtly in the Adagio religioso second movement, with its allusions to Beethoven’s “Song of Thanksgiving” from his A Minor Quartet, Op. 132. Anda plays a kind of baroque invention, set over the “night music” strains of the spare string section. The various rustlings and evocations of night birds suggest impulses that Messiaen would exploit even further than Bartok. At times, the ensemble  suggests chamber music invested with brilliant runs in the keyboard that suddenly become diatonic or modal progressions in scintillating scales. In his notes to this reissue, Andrew Rose notes that he has corrected a bad edit in the last movement that dropped in pitch as the various takes were spliced together. The neo-Classical Allegro vivace exploits some witty counterpoint balanced by the piano’s Magyar rusticity and aggression, answered by the tympani. Fricsay’s verve and natural affinity for the Bartok style make the faster sections bristle with lithe energy. Tibor Serly served as Bartok’s agent for the completion of his instructions, the last pages having clearly been indicated by Bartok’s shorthand. The Bartok “tailors” have been “re-tailored” with a grand passion.

—Gary Lemco


BARTOK: The Three Piano Concertos – Geza Anda, piano/ Berlin Radio Sym. Orch./ Ferenc Fricsay – Pristine Audio 48K/24-bit FLAC remasters PASC 388, 78:46 *****:

Since my Oppo player handles FLAC files, I am now downloading the same 48/24 XR remastered files as provided by Pristine Audio, and burning them directly to DVD-R. These files have to be downsampled to 44.1/16 to offer as CD-Rs or CD-quality downloads. Andrew Rose transferred from the now-public-domain DGG stereo LPs 2539 061 and 062. While I didn’t have either the original DGG LPs, CDs or Pristine’s remastered CD-R, I did have a DGG CD from eight years later featuring Maurizio Pollini with Claudio Abbado conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It only has the first two piano concertos, not the third.

The stereo on the Pollini CD is good but a bit opaque and dull-sounding next to the great clarity and resolution of the Pristine FLAC audio files. The Pristine remastering has much deeper bass end, the piano has a crystalline quality, and the orchestra has more depth than on the CD.  The brass section is also sharp and clean-sounding. The piano comes across especially enhanced in the treble end, where the close-to-pounding sounds common in Bartok can get annoying with poorer reproduction. There is absolutely no hint of surface noise, ticks or pops, just as with the transfers from LP which HDTT has offered. Also, Pollini’s performances are not quite as accurate in the very rapid-fire passages as are Anda’s. Even if you have to convert FLAC files to hi-res PCM in order to play on your gear, I would heartily suggest these versions over the standard CD-Rs.

—John Sunier

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