CD Reviews (The Straits Times, April 2012)

BARTOK Piano Concertos
BBC Philharmonic / Gianandrea Noseda
Chandos 10610 / *****

The three vastly contrasting piano concertos of the Hungarian nationalist composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) are landmarks of 20th century pianism. The extremely strident First Concerto (1926) emerged from the same cataclysmic epoch of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring and Bartok’s own urban ballet of sex and violence, The Miraculous Mandarin. The Second Concerto (1933), despite its percussiveness, is modelled like a baroque concerto grosso. Here the old and new meet with sparks flying. The Third Concerto (1945), which was incomplete at the composer’s death, returned to an agreeable mellowness tinged with a certain nostalgia. All three are virtuoso vehicles, demanding the utmost from pianists and the orchestral support.

French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, celebrated for performances of the French musical impressionists, downplays on the angularity and hard-edged steel of the first two concertos. He finds a mercurial streak in pages of flying velocity and rare serenity in the slow movements. Bartok was after all influenced by Debussy in matters of orchestral harmonies, textures and colour. This is a totally valid and persuasive view, moving away from the brutal vehemence of Maurizo Pollini’s famous 1970s recordings. With an equally musical view of the final concerto, this set is urgently recommended.

BARTOK Piano Concerto No.2
Performed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with
Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christian Vasquez
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday, 21 April 2012 at
7.30 pm

DEBUSSY Complete Piano Solos
BIS CD-1955/56 (6 CDs) / *****

This slimline box-set probably has the most complete edition of solo piano music by French composer Claude-Achille Debussy (1862-1918) in the market. Performed with great sensitivity, finesse and an acute ear for intricate multi-layered sonorities, Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa’s account is one for the ages. From the early salon-like miniatures (including the popular Arabesques, Reverie and lesser-known Ballade, Nocturne) to the great impressionist masterpieces (complete sets of Pr√©ludes, Images, Estampes and √Čtudes), she mines a wealth of nuances, and is recorded in sumptuous sound. Also included are the ballet La boite a joujoux (The Toybox) and several rarities, like the Scherzo from his early Piano Trio and Debussy’s final work of 1917, Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon (Evenings Lit By Glowing Coals), only discovered in 2001.

The final disc unearths the World Premiere recordings of five Preludes And Fugues composed in 1881-83, when he was a student at the Paris Conservatory. Lest one gets overly excited, these are merely well-schooled exercises from an apprentice on his chequered path towards greatness. Closing the set is Debussy’s only piano concerto, his affable melody-filled Fantaisie (1889-90), which gets a spirited contribution from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Shui Lan. A further inducement: this set retails at super-budget price in HMV.