bartok bronfman sony

Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2002 and the recording is still available.

Bela Bartók (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No.2 (1930-31)
Piano Concerto No.3 (1945)
Piano Concerto No.1 (1926)
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. c. 1995
Sony SBK89732 [76]

Competition for this coupling in the budget and mid-price sector is strong. Ashkenazy/Solti, Anda/Fricsay and Kovacevich/Davis are all favoured contenders, and if modern digital sound is required, the Naxos disc, with the ever-reliable Jeno Jando, is well worth considering. So this new re-issue enters a crowded field, but with artists of the calibre of Bronfman and Salonen, coupled with first-rate sound and super-budget price tag, this is as good as any in the catalogue.

For some unaccountable reason, Sony have re-ordered the sequence of the concertos, so that unless you re-programme your player, you may be brought up short at the start by the strains of the Second Concerto rather than the First. Once that is sorted, there is a great deal to enjoy in these performances. What I like chiefly about Bronfman’s playing is that although the percussive, almost primitively barbaric nature of some of this music is not under-played, he is equally determined to show us other aspects of Bartók’s sound world. This seems almost a revisionist view, chiefly engendered by players like Schiff and Kocsis, who in turn have looked to Bartók’s own playing for inspiration. Where Pollini and Abbado, on their amazing DG disc of Concertos 1 and 2, batter us into submission in a thrilling display of virtuosity and steely bravura, Bronfman and Salonen coax another layer of texture and dynamic range out of the music. Thus, the pounding opening of Concerto No.1 is suitably percussive and relentless, but it builds in a graded, subtle way that makes it seem more original, less like second-rate Prokofiev. Both this movement and the first movement of No.2 benefit enormously from the injection of point and sparkle, whilst losing nothing of the motoric drive that is also an essential element. Bronfman’s more lyrical approach predictably yields major results in the slow movements. The important percussion parts in the second movement of Concerto No.1 are beautifully characterised by Salonen and his players, and the atmospheric Night Music of Concerto No.2 has rarely sounded more evocative and haunting. Finales of both concertos are thrilling, with fast (-ish) speeds tempered by precise articulation.

The Third Concerto was written for Bartók’s wife, Ditta, and is both less aggressive and more classically structured. It suits Bronfman and Salonen best out of the three, and is given a marvellously subtle and polished rendition. The delightfully witty opening, which seems to indicate Bartók’s contentment (or at least peaceful resignation) at this late stage of his life in the New World, is played with idiomatic vigour, tempered by a warmth that is rare in Bartók performances. I have always found the seventeen bar completion of the finale, by Tibor Serly, to be entirely convincing (it was based on Bartók’s sketches), and it makes a marvellous conclusion to a very satisfying reading.

Documentation is minimal but just about adequate. The recording is cut at a fairly low level, which requires some watching of the volume control, as the sound is extremely wide-ranging and full-bodied. It is possible to find a comfortable listening level, and the bass drum thwacks that litter the pieces are thrilling in their impact. Highly recommended.

Tony Haywood

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