Fiery Bartók

LAWRENCE BUDMEN listens to French pianist Hélčne Grimaud
with the Russian National Orchestra

The Hungarian composer Bela Bartók (1881-1945) possessed one of the most distinctive creative voices of the twentieth century. He assimilated folkloric elements into his compositional technique but produced a series of landmark scores that defined 'modernism' in music. After settling in the United States in 1940, his final years were marked by poverty and ill health, yet he continued to compose and produced some of his most challenging works. His Piano Concerto No 3 Sz 119 was completed by Bartók's pupil Tibor Serly. (Serly was himself a gifted composer and perhaps the most eloquent conductor of Bartók's orchestral scores.) The concerto's premičre (in 1946) was performed by two legendary Hungarian artists -- pianist Gyorgy Sandor and conductor Eugene Ormandy. It would be hard to imagine a more dynamic, deeply probing interpretation of this complex score than the French pianist Hélčne Grimaud offered in concert with the Moscow-based Russian National Orchestra under Alexander Vedernikov on 27 January 2004 at the Gleason Theater in Miami Beach, Florida, USA, presented by the Concert Association of Florida.

From the very first chords it was obvious that the glamorous Ms. Grimaud displayed a unique mastery of this difficult work. By the end of his life Bartók had refined his musical language into a subtle study of instrumental technique. Grimaud took Bartók's sprawling musical paragraphs and brought a riveting, almost magisterial eloquence to the concerto. The work's heart lies in the central Adagio religioso-Poco piu mosso-Tempo 1 -- a 'night music' that is both contemplative and disturbing. Grimaud's ability to evoke both sensitive tonal shadings and clangorous dissonance made this movement an overwhelming experience. Her technique is brilliant and commanding. She imbued this nightmarish movement with an almost frightening intensity. In the opening Allegretto Grimaud produced pearls of pianistic brilliance at a rhythmically daunting tempo. In the concluding Allegro vivace her burning inner fire turned rolling octaves into musical thunderbolts. At the concerto's conclusion Grimaud's unrelenting intensity was bracing -- a supercharged performance! Hélčne Grimaud is a pianistic dynamo. She brought absolute mastery and compelling musical adventurousness to one of the most difficult works in the repertoire.

Conductor Vedernikov and the Russian National Orchestra were equal partners in this magnificent performance of Bartok's swan song opus. Vedernikov's long experience as an opera conductor clearly pays dividends in his concerto collaborations. (He is Music Director and Chief Conductor of Moscow's Bolshoi Theater and former Music Director of the Stanislavsky Music Theater.) The silken Russian National strings captured the eerie gloom of the 'night music'. (This music has a 1940s film noire quality that places it very much in New York rather than Hungary.) Every subtle gradation of string tone matched Grimaud's glowing waterfall of tonal hues. In the finale Vedernikov's manic rhythmic propulsion drew every ounce of excitement from the music. His wind, brass, and percussion played with dizzying, kinetic brilliance. A great Bartók performance!

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 5 in E Minor Op 64 is thrice familiar orchestral fare, but there is nothing quite like Tchaikovsky played by a top rank Russian orchestra. Principal French horn Igor Makarov phrased his famous solo in the Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza with alluring romanticism. His wide vibrato had an authentic Russian sound. The wonderfully languid oboe tone of Andrey Rubtsov captured the music's tragic poignancy. In the first movement Andante-Allegro con anima, the violins (led by concertmaster Alexey Bruni) really gave their all to the waltz melody. They played with golden tone and a full, rich vibrato -- a string section filled with Heifetzs and Milsteins. The often discursive movement had a rhythmic tightness and drive that made the music sound fresh. Vedernikov understood the balletic quality of the Valse: Allegro moderato. One could see the dancers in the mind's eye. (Vedernikov must be a superb ballet conductor.) For once the Finale: Andante maestoso was not an overblown anticlimax but the real apotheosis of Tchaikovsky's musical argument. Vedernikov traced the agony and the ecstasy of this music with an unerring sense of rhythmic energy, dynamic contrast, and lyrical ebb and flow. The musicians responded with colorful, sensitive playing from every orchestral choir. The gorgeous sound of the cello section (under Principal Alexander Gotgelf) was exceptionally beautiful. Tchaikovsky symphonies are rarely performed this idiomatically!

Vedernikov opened the concert with the ceremonial Festive Overture Opus 96 (composed for the thirty seventh anniversary of the October Revolution) by Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Like his film scores, this is Shostakovich in a populist vein. Conductor and orchestra summoned up all the brilliance they could command for this lively curtain raiser. The brilliant trumpets and rich string sound gave the music real presence.

Despite recent personnel changes the Russian National Orchestra remains a first class ensemble. Alexander Vedernikov (a member of the orchestra's Conductors Collegium) is a dynamic, brilliantly gifted conductor. What made this concert unique was Hélčne Grimaud's magnificent interpretation of an elusive Bartók masterwork. Like recent recitals by Piotr Anderszewski, Denis Burstein, Francesco Libetta and Konstantin Lifschitz, Grimaud's performance was one of the most dazzling pianistic displays in this or any music season!

Copyright © 29 January 2004 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA

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