Bartók: Piano Concertos

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 3
PERFORMER: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano); BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10610

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Over the years, Bartók’s Piano Concertos have been exceptionally well served on disc, with highly regarded cycles from 1960s and 1970s from Géza Anda (DG) and Stephen Kovacevich (Philips) holding their own against more recent alternatives from Zoltán Kocsís (Philips, currently unavailable) and a trio of performers (Zimerman, Andsnes and Grimaud) conducted by Boulez (DG).

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet can be added to this august list of interpreters, for these exciting and dynamic performances certainly match such rivals in terms of their visceral impact and musical insight.

Working in an incisive partnership with Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic, Bavouzet relishes the high-octane energy of the outer movements of the first two concertos but through his imaginatively varied use of colour manages to avoid the trap of making Bartók’s percussive writing seem too relentless. Likewise, the central Andante from No. 1 and the scherzo from No. 2 benefit from Bavouzet’s subtle control of timbre and miraculously clear fingerwork.

In the Third Concerto, Bavouzet’s unmannered phrasing of the opening theme in the first movement and the plainness and simplicity of his chorale in the Adagio religioso may seem cool and detached. But I find the approach entirely convincing, for while acknowledging the greater restraint and lyricism of Bartók’s later style, Bavouzet nonetheless allows a more brittle and aggressive character to come to the surface from time to time, particularly in the fast and almost manically driven Finale.

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As always, Chandos cushions these fine performances in opulent sound but the piano is placed within the orchestra, enabling us to hear Bartók’s intricate contrapuntal lines with the greatest clarity. Erik Levi