Long in need of a champion capable of fully communicating their distinctive and multifarious personalities, Bartók’s piano concertos may have found one in this thrilling collaboration between Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s San Francisco Symphony.
Steeped in all-things Hungarian, Aimard approaches these three strikingly different pieces – each bristling with not inconsiderable challenges of their own – with all the conviction of a true believer in what he describes as their “linguistically singular music”.
Salonen, too, is an avid proselytiser for Bartók, having previously recorded the concertos with Yefim Bronfman and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Sony back in 1995. That long association pays one dividend after another here with the San Francisco ensemble sounding noticeably leaner and evincing more bite than during their stewardship by Salonen’s predecessor, Michael Tilson Thomas. Particularly satisfying is the shared determination to cast off the inherited mahogany-dark tenor and associated pugnacious tropes that have bedevilled Bartók’s piano concertos. The result is like hearing, revealingly, all three anew.
Composed in 1926, Bartók himself considered the First Concerto to be “difficult for audience and orchestra alike”. Certainly, its signature insistence on complexity resists easy analysis or interpretation. But Aimard and the Bay Area band rise to the challenge like prize fighters who know when to roll with the punches and where to deliver their own knockout blows.
Immediately apparent is how translucent and appreciably fragile they make it sound beneath its unforgiving dyspeptic dissonance and often savage, rhythmic ferocity. Proportionality and precision is all here, soloist and orchestra meticulously mapping out their territorial claims with a bristling, take-no-prisoners sense of their own rightness, pinioned by the uneasy rapprochement of the Andante middle movement where strings are noticeable by their absence.
The Second Concerto from 1931 again eschews strings for an ebullient opening Allegro, its endlessly cascading piano line dispatched with relishable brio by Aimard, Salonen whipping up the compliant orchestra into cresting waves of pointed commentary and colour. Gossamer subtlety marks the unsettling beginning of the expansive Adagio, which bursts into flames in a central section of blistering pianism from Aimard ominously quenched by glowering percussion and strings. The boiling finale is a veritable fireworks display, fizzing and flashing in radiant explosions in which all concerned acquit themselves with operatic aplomb as if to the manor born.
Written in failing health and impoverished exile from the Nazis in 1945, the last year of Bartók’s life, the Third Concerto is cut from an entirely different cloth, perfectly tailored here by Aimard and Salonen. Speaking of the recent loss of his homeland and of anticipated separation from his wife, its wistful lyricism is afforded the romance it deserves, and that Bartók seldom receives.
It is treated to the most elegant and eloquent of performances. The lightly Bach-accented opening is delicately handled, the pristine middle movement played with exquisite, cut-crystal finesse, the finale a thing of joyful wonder. Aimard’s piano line bubbles along with free-flowing immediacy, the fluid orchestral accompaniment ever-reciprocally responsive.
Producer Jason O’Connell and engineer Jon Johannsen’s recording in Davies Symphony Hall (treat yourself to it on headphones) is textbook-perfect, with excellent notes by Nigel Simeone completing a recommended package.
Works: Piano Concertos
Performers: Pierre-Laurent Aimard p, San Francisco Symphony/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Label: Pentatone 5187029