Classical Music on CD: Bartk Piano Concertos 1-3 Andrs Schiff, Budapest Festival Orchestra / Fischer Teldec 0630-13158-2

First there was rhythm - pulsing, driving, primal rhythm. And a new word in musical terminology: Barbaro. As with sticks on skins, so with hammers on strings. The piano as one of the percussion family, the piano among the percussion family. The first and second concertos were written to be performed that way. But the rhythm had shape and direction, myriad accents, myriad subtleties. An informed primitivism. A Baroque primitivism. Then came the folkloric inflections chipped from the music of time: the crude and misshapen suddenly finding a singing voice. Like the simple melody - perhaps a childhood recollection - that emerges from the dogged rhythm of the First Concerto's second movement. Andrs Schiff plays it like a defining moment - the piano reinvented as a singing instrument. His "parlando" (conversational) style is very much in Bartk's own image.

But it's the balance here between the honed and unhoned, the brawn and beauty, the elegance and wit of this astonishing music that make these readings special. Performances of the first and second concertos are invariably about brute force and no music. Keyboard giants pumping iron. Empty gestures, empty notes. Schiff and his conductor, Ivn Fischer, are exciting (and how) because there aren't any empty notes. Every note (and none goes unheard thanks to some brilliant engineering) is a sparking plug, a combustible life-force in Bartk's engine. There is genuine exhilaration (and logic and purpose) here in the contrapuntal ingenuity of the writing. The spirit is in the counterpoint, the interplay of voices. Like Bach, like Bartk. But then to emerge into the twilight of the reflective Third Concerto - it's like suddenly achieving a state of grace. For Bartk, in the last year of his life, that's exactly what it was. And that's exactly how Schiff plays it. Marvellous. The first important release of the year.

Edward Seckerson

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