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Boulez's New-ish Bartok

Discussion in 'Music & Music Streaming Services' started by Todd_A, Aug 26, 2005.

  1. Todd_A


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    [This was originally written in January. Subsequent listens have confirmed my initial impressions.]

    I knew I’d have it before the end of the month. I’ve been waiting for this disc for quite a while – a few years, in fact – ever since I read that Krystian Zimerman was recording some Bartok with Boulez at the helm. (That was in 2001.) When I found out Leif Ove Andsnes was the soloist for the second, my interest was piqued further – and that was before I heard his superb recording of Bartok’s Violin Sonatas. The final makeup of the CD was not completed until just last October, of course, with Helene Grimaud recording the Third. And so I have it. Was it worth the wait? Well . . .

    I’ll leave aside sound quality until later and will instead focus on the performances. Zimerman opens the disc playing the First with the Chicago Symphony, which in this work would seem to be a match made in marketing heaven. It nearly proves to be. To say that Zimerman handles all of the challenges of the piece would be an understatement. I doubt he broke much of a sweat. Fortunately, he avoids that easiest of traps to fall into with this piece: he never merely bangs away. Whether playing a surprisingly soft pianissimo or a pounding forte, his tone is always perfectly controlled. The louder passages never decline into metallic harshness, and Zimerman brings tonal variation even in the thundering opening of the final movement. His nimble fingerwork easily unknots even the densest passages. He may not bring the same sense of Hungarian-ness that Anda, Kocsis, or Schiff bring, but overall, he is quite good. Boulez’s accompaniment is also quite good. He’s more relaxed and pliable than in his 60s recording with Daniel Barenboim, but that certainly does not mean that he presents a light, springy version of the work. His brass cut, his winds pierce, his strings sting; yes, this is astringent and thorny. As it should be. He pays meticulous attention to the smallest details in the score, and one gets to hear about as close as is possible to a thorough aural x-ray of the score. The orchestra overpowers the piano quite a number of times, including only a handful of winds. But more on that later. So, the opening work is exciting, exceedingly well-played by Zimerman, and with loving accompaniment by the conductor. Well, as loving as Boulez gets. And they never present Bartok as brutal. A good sign.

    The Second fares even better. Leif Ove Andsnes is on a roll. Last year at this time I got his staggeringly great Grieg Piano Concerto (coupled to a far less impressive Schumann Concerto), then it was his almost as impressive Bartok Violin Sonatas, and now this. Is Andsnes the Bartokian for the next decade or two? He may turn out to be. As with Zimerman, Andsnes plays everything with seeming ease. Even the most digitally challenging sections come off without a hitch, and Andsnes avoids any banging. Indeed, his dynamic range is quite something to behold. He will be happily plinking away just to accelerate and hammer out powerful chords with nary a hint of steel or strain just to move to another quiet passage without a hitch. The third movement abounds with bravura work, with Andsnes spinning off the notes while never losing his grasp of the piece. Boulez, too, does some fine work. The Berlin Philharmonic are very well suited to his conception of the work, which is vigorous and powerful, but never too harsh. A good illustration of this comes in the second movement when the timpani swiftly and powerfully knock out a few notes and then subside just to do it again. It’s quite effective. The truly beautiful string passages also benefit greatly from the Berlin sound. There is an oddly judged use of the timpani at 1’13” in the third movement, almost as though either Boulez or the percussionist missed a beat, or perhaps the engineers made it that way. Again, the orchestra overpowers the piano quite a number of times, including only a handful of winds. But more on that later. So, two down. Both performances are excellent and worthy of attention by Bartok fans.

    That leaves the Third with the lovely Ms Grimaud. (Really, even if I wouldn’t have liked her recording, I could just flip open the booklet to gaze at her portrait.) My experience with Grimaud is very limited, and it has been years since I’ve heard anything by her. This work seems like a good fit. She doesn’t have quite the pianistic personality of either Zimerman or Andsnes, but she does bring a more softly hewn approach which so benefits this work. Her captivating legato suits so much of the piece, and her quiet, contemplative playing in the second movement is quite fine. In the finale she loses her touch a bit in the bigger flourishes, but all told, she does a good job. She’s certainly not a top contender, and she’s not up to the other pianists on the disc, but she’ll do. Boulez is again in aural x-ray form, bringing out all manner of detail everywhere there is detail to be heard. As with the First, he’s more relaxed here than in the 60s recording, but he ain’t soft.

    So now to the sound: it bugs me, particularly in the first two concertos. While instrumental timbre sounds fine throughout, everything else is awry. These are the most decidedly studio sounding studio recordings I’ve heard in a while. While the first two concertos were recorded in large venues, there is almost no reverberation to speak of, and everything sounds claustrophobic and airless. Clearly some single instruments were closely miked, and DG must have used one microphone for every two instruments elsewhere. The soundstage is absent; in its place is an artificial sonic construct where at any time a flute or oboe may take center stage, overshadowing the piano, just to allow another instrument to do so momentarily. They don’t all pop up in the center – they pop up everywhere – and it can be distracting. Many times the piano is overpowered by the orchestra. While this more accurately reflects what one may hear in concert, it’s rare to hear a handful of winds drown out the piano. I suppose this is Boulez’s show, so DG’s engineers gave the orchestra the first priority. The Third fares much better. Maybe its recent vintage prevented too much tomfoolery at the mixing desk. Whatever the cause, there is a greater sense of space and a more realistic sonic picture. Despite the shortcomings, the recording is remarkably clean; one can play this disc loud, loud, loud and still not hear any distortion. I know. That’s what I did.

    So, with the sound quality caveats out of the way, the verdict is in: this is a fine recording, especially of the first two concertos, but it is not the top choice. (I have little doubt that this will be the best new release of Bartok’s Piano Concertos this year, though.) Anyone who expected great recordings to rival those by Anda, Kocsis, and Schiff will be disappointed. Those who wanted to hear what three big name pianists and the high priest of musical modernism can do with the works will be more satisfied. Great this disc may not be, but I’ll be spinning it again very soon. Probably tomorrow.

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