Bartok's Piano Concerto - CBSO at Symphony Hall by David Hart

For reasons unknown Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 1 hasn’t been heard at a CBSO concert for 25 years. So top marks (and a raised eyebrow) for a much-belated reinstatement to the repertory – even if it was considered necessary to bookend this uncompromising masterpiece between Dvorak and Richard Strauss. Still, it made for some interesting comparisons and contrasts.
Soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and conductor Kazushi Ono were clearly of one mind in treating the concerto as large-scale chamber music, with percussion and timpani flanking the piano at the front of the platform. Although much has been made of the work’s rhythmic drive, theirs was an interpretation more of sensitivity than brute force, the downstage jazz-like trio engaging with – and sometimes being subverted by – each other and the woodwind-led challenges behind them.Ono’s direction, supremely alert to balance and tonal delicacy, and Bavouzet’s understanding of Bartok’s dry humour (especially in the Andante) and pent-up virtuosity (released fully in the coming-of-age finale) convinced on every level. And what a superbly appropriate, and even more exuberantly delivered, encore this last movement made.
Just as distinctive was Ono’s approach to Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings. Here it was a matter of scale, with reduced forces made to appear deliberately unforced – all delicate contours rather than sweeping lushness. But the scherzo sounded rather skimpy, and the concluding Allegro vivace had lots of sparks without really catching alight.
In complete contrast Strauss’s ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’, with nearly 100 players, was all effulgent strings, fearsome brass and climaxes so intelligently contoured by Ono they never sounded just noisy.  Yes, it’s blowzy nonsense leavened by moments of sheer beauty; but what a wonderful noise it made.
David Hart

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