Bartok at Home, With a Touch of the Mischievous
Many of the artists chosen by Carnegie Hall to present a series of Perspectives concerts have brought in colleagues from diverse international cultures to share the programs and expand, well, the perspective.
The Hungarian-born pianist Andráas Schiff is taking a different approach and looking to his roots. He has invited many Hungarian artists, including the folk ensemble Muzsikás, to participate in his 11-event series. It began on Friday and Saturday nights at Carnegie Hall with Mr. Schiff and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by its music director, Ivan Fischer (who won fans in New York this summer with a gripping production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the Mostly Mozart Festival). The series, subtitled In the Steps of Bartok, will explore Bartok’s impact by juxtaposing his major scores with works by classical masters.
For the opening concerts Mr. Schiff played vibrant, masterly accounts of the three Bartok piano concertos (the First and Third on Friday, the Second on Saturday) in programs that also offered works by Schubert, including the Fifth and the Ninth Symphonies, as well as Bartok’s seldom heard “Hungarian Peasant Songs.” Bartok’s Third Concerto was written in 1945, the year he died, when he was ill with leukemia and deeply reflective. This is the most lyrical, accessible and playable of the three concertos. It turns up in performance, though not as often as you might imagine. But the aggressively modernist First Concerto is seldom heard; and the Second, an exuberant, wildly imaginative piece, might be a repertory staple were it not one of the most technically demanding concertos ever written.
It is not often that you hear all three Bartok piano concertos, though Pierre-Laurent Aimard presented them in two concerts with the Bamberg Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall in 2009: brilliant performances that approached the pieces as seminal 20th-century works. Mr. Schiff’s accounts brought out more of the elements of Hungarian dance and folk music. Presenting Bartok in the context of his homeland is a theme of this series, as Mr. Schiff makes clear in a video interview on Carnegie Hall’s Web site.
“Roots are incredibly important to me,” he says. Artists should investigate those roots, he adds, and “incorporate them into our personality and into our creative process.” Mr. Schiff was born in Budapest in 1953. Though he is known for his probing performances of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, Bartok has been central to his artistic identity.
Bartok’s First Piano Concerto, written in 1926, incorporates motifs of Hungarian folk music, though Bartok chooses elemental themes and presents them in fractured guises. The propulsive first movement opens with barbaric repeated piano octaves and chords, engulfed by snide brass and woodwinds. As the music unfolds, pummeling rhythms alternate with bursts of industrious counterpoint. In the mysterious second movement the piano discourses with percussion instruments, which in this performance, as Bartok requested, were placed right behind the piano onstage. This is Bartok in his disorienting night-music mode. Mr. Schiff’s performance was a demonstration that you can convey the pummeling power of Bartok’s piano writing and make clear that the piano is a percussion instrument while producing a sound that is crystalline, bright but never steely.
In the Third Concerto Mr. Schiff brought out the elegiac beauty, folkloric lyricism, dancing spirits and, by the end, impish joy of this piece, which he describes as Bartok’s swan song. On Saturday night he gave an exhilarating account of the daunting Second Concerto, a performance that made the path-breaking challenges of the piano writing seem playable: oscillating clusters, scurrying runs of double thirds, fanfarelike themes in wide chords so packed with notes that many fingers must do double duty.
Bartok left the strings out of the brittle, incisive first movement. But we enter another world in the second movement, which begins with a muted, austere chorale for strings that becomes a backdrop for the piano’s questioning, eerie melodic phrases. This effect was beautifully realized by Mr. Schiff and the sensitive, mellow strings of the orchestra.
On Friday Mr. Fischer and the orchestra offered a joyous account of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, a youthful Mozartean work. Mr. Fischer chose an unusual placement of instruments, with pairs of cellos and the four basses positioned among the other strings and the woodwinds. This arrangement compelled the musicians to listen closely to one another and perform the score as if it were a big piece of chamber music.
On Saturday he led a fresh, rhythmically vivid account of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, his most ambitious symphonic work, lasting nearly an hour. The woodwinds were placed in the first row of instruments. So, as in the Fifth Symphony, this performance had the spontaneity and interplay of chamber music. One of the most attentive listeners in the audience was Mr. Schiff, who now and then could not help making conducting gestures as he watched Mr. Fischer, his longtime friend and colleague.
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times