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5.0 out of 5 stars Into the fabulous heart of Bartok's world, 13 Nov. 2009
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This review is from: Bartók: Sonata for 2 Pianos & Percussion Suite for 2 Pianos (Audio CD)
I am now getting deep into my journey into the astonishing musical world of Béla Bartók. For so many years my knowledge of him was based on the famous, large scale orchestral works, and the iconically difficult String Quartets, between which I had a vague sense of the anomaly that the two classes of work could originate from the same mind. Then an impulse a couple of months back to click on Bartók: Duke Bluebeard's Castle, which had been palely loitering at the bottom of my wish list for some years, and it has been non-stop Bartók for me ever since. The marvellous thing about this journey of deepening acquaintance with his music is that, although a unifying core of musical language has begun to emerge at the centre of the big picture, the big picture itself continues to grow indefinitely. More peripheral characteristics such as style, mood and meaning have never settled into a predictable pattern, and the man just seems more like a chameleon whose essence is unfathomable.

This disc sees a superb pairing of two large scale chamber works, involving two pianos, written in the later years of his life for performance with his pianist wife, Ditta. The Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion was written in 1938 against the gathering storm clouds of impending war, and his indecision as to whether to leave his native Hungary, made more acute by his concern for his dying mother. The first movement has parallels with earlier, less extreme, Messiaen via Debussy, and comes across like an insanely virtuosic accompaniment to a chase scene from a black and white horror movie. The second, slow movement could be music from another part of the same movie, spinning a strange claustrophobic atmosphere of Transylvanian gloom. The third movement breaks with that mood completely, being a high spirited pianistic tour-de-force, in which high speed textures, generated on both pianos, are allowed to collide and interfere with dazzling effect. It is in this final movement that the percussion, namely the xylophone, starts to move into dialogue with the pianos, and provide more than incidental atmospheric decoration.

The second work on the disc is the Suite for Two Pianos of 1941, written in American exile as an adaptation of his 2nd Orchestral Suite of 1907 that had been so poorly received at that time. Even more so than with the first work on the disc, the resonance with Debussy is very strong, with moments that seem just on the verge of paraphrase. How much of this Debussian character is actually there in the work is hard to tell from a single recording. That Debussy was an influence on Bartók in 1907 is certainly the case, but also the recording is by two Frenchman, one of whom I know has a strong background in that repertoire. The mood of the first movement is calm, bright and lyrical, with undercurrents of passion that never become unseemly. Again we hear the swirling pianistic effects arising from shimmering interactions between both pianos. The second movement begins with gay, barely disguised, peasant dance material, but which suddenly gives way to the most astonishing extended fugue that is arguably the dramatic highlight of the work, and for me is reminiscent of the most powerful passages of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata. The third slow movement has a shy, hesitant quality, and is the most obvious homage to Debussy. There is a strange, brief, passionate outburst just before the end, that subsides just as suddenly back to its initial diffidence. The final movement is hugely animated and is probably the most obviously Bartókian, with an abundance of strange scales and chromatic devices. It is filled with episodes of grandeur and drama, finishing quite abruptly.

The performances are fantastic. Pludermacher I know and love from his superb Debussy Etudes. Heisser, the second pianist I don't think I know. The recordings are perhaps more questionable. One is aware of being at the other end of the room to the instruments rather than up among them, and there is some bit of the audio spectrum missing. Paradoxically however, this probably adds to the experience of great clarity of detail amid the dazzling piano textures, so this might not be such a bad thing. It certainly does nothing to make me hesitate in recommending these extraordinary masterpieces to those who are ready for the journey into the labyrinthine mind of one of the sleeping giants of 20th Century music.
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