Bartok: Piano Concerto Nos. 1 & 3 (CD review)

Also, Divertimento for String Orchestra. Peter Serkin, piano; Seiji Ozawa, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Rudolf Barshai, Moscow Chamber Orchestra. HDTT HDCD248.

American pianist Peter Serkin (b. 1947) is into his fifth decade of performing, and while he is among the world's leading pianists, he has never quite achieved the intense following his father, pianist Rudolf Serkin, acquired. I suppose that's one of the drawbacks of performing in the shadow of an illustrious parent, unfair as it is. Anyway, on this remastered disc from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), we hear Peter Serkin in one of his earliest recordings, two 1967 performances of Bartok with Maestro Seiji Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony.

The album begins with the Piano Concerto No. 1, written in 1926 by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945). It is not the most smiling work in the world, full of hard edges and blunt percussives. Although it displays much of the coarse dissonance typical of Bartok's work, it also utilizes a good deal of Baroque-style counterpoint. Along with his Concerto for Orchestra, which came much later, the First Piano Concerto remains one of the composer's most popular pieces.

So, how does Serkin handle it? Well, he's an extremely discerning, precise, and somewhat reserved player, so his interpretation is characteristically more reflective than it is edgy or exciting. The problem is, I'm not sure that's exactly what the music needs.

All three movements of the First Concerto seem more leisurely than one usually encounters in Bartok performances, making them perhaps a shade more scholarly than not. In the Andante, especially, Serkin imbues the music with an eerier quality than do most other pianists, taking it at a much slower pace; but that's about the only place his approach works well. One thing he does provide in abundance, though, is contrast, because after the ultraslow Andante, he launches into a pretty heady Allegro. Still, what I missed most was a compelling forward pulse, a building of tension and its consequent release. It is these qualities one finds in Bartok readings from pianists like Stephen Kovacevich (Philips), Zolton Kocsis (Philips), Krystian Zimerman (DG), and Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca).

Serkin fares better with the Concerto No. 3, written in 1945, maybe because it is lighter than the First. Bartok wrote the Third at the very end of his life, not even finishing the last few bars, and it might have been his way of showing the world that he had softened considerably from his younger, more defiant days. Here, Serkin, with his studied approach, seems more at home with the composer's newfound melodic normalcy, even if there still appears to be a degree of slackness in the rendition.  Be this as it may, when you factor in the excellence of the HDTT remastered sound, Serkin's Third might be a reasonable consideration for anyone who enjoys Bartok.

Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra comes from 1939, and on the present disc we have it performed by Rudolf Barshai and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Barshai helps it along with dash and élan in the outer movements and splendid atmosphere in the Adagio. You won't find a better reading than this one, and when you again count in the superb audio quality, you get a top-of-the-line choice in this repertoire.

RCA recorded the Piano Concertos in 1967, and HDTT transferred them to compact disc from an RCA 4-track tape. The sound is a tad forward overall, but it suits the music, and it provides an exceptionally well detailed experience, with plenty of air around individual instruments. The transient response is quick and taut, the piano firmly grounded within the orchestral setting, its attack strongly delineated. While the clarity and exactitude of the sound tend to diminish somewhat the apparent size of the orchestra, a fairly realistic stage depth helps the illusion of one's being in front of a live ensemble. Loud outbursts, cymbals, and triangles emerge impressively, as do all of the percussive instruments for that matter, including the piano.

Decca recorded the Divertimento in 1962, and HDTT transferred it from a London 4-track tape. It may not have quite as much orchestral depth as the RCA production, but it displays a better left-to-right stereo spread, with better fill. It also sounds a shade bright to my ears. Be that as it may, like the RCA recording it exhibits a vivid, vibrant sound, a wide dynamic range, and a potent transient impact.

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa