San Francisco Chronicle

Symphony finishes Bartók project with bang

- By Joshua Kosman

Béla Bartók’s three piano concertos don’t quite amount to any sort of consistent artistic statement. The first two were intended as vehicles for his own keyboard virtuosity, while the last one, written during his final decline, was designed to provide for his widow, also a pianist.

Taken together, though, the three pieces do spotlight consistent threads in the composer’s creative thinking — his devotion to taut formal structures, his masterful blend of orchestral color and splashy keyboard display, and the bristly angularity of his harmonic language.

Last June, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony launched an ambitious recording project with the brilliant French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, devoted to capturing all three works in live performanc­e in Davies Symphony Hall. They began then with the First and Third Concertos, and on Friday, Feb. 17, Aimard returned for a whizbang account of the Second Concerto.

It was tremendous.

The Second Concerto is perhaps the most exciting and directly rewarding of the three works, a whirlwind of keyboard activity set against firework blasts of orchestral imaginatio­n. The writing is unsparing in its demands on the piano soloist — after all, this was Bartók himself at the keyboard — and Aimard dispatched those difficulti­es like an Olympic athlete.

The most intense outbreak of piano pyrotechni­cs comes in the middle of the score’s tripartite middle movement, because of course it does — like so many of Bartók’s works, the Second Concerto is built in an elaboratel­y palindromi­c arrangemen­t, with the climax at dead center. Here Aimard’s hands began to fade into a barely visible blur as he tore through the maniacally paced passagewor­k. The outer movements were scarcely less theatrical, with melodic figures tumbling forth thick and fast amid characteri­stically craggy keyboard filigree.

In general, the question is how big a deal the soloist wants to make of the difficulty of Bartók’s writing. When Jeremy Denk played this concerto with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Symphony in 2017, he put an urbanely effortless spin on the whole affair.

But the truth is that this is hugely challengin­g music (for the soloist, and even for the listener), and there’s a wonderful candor in rendering it with

all the dynamism it demands. That was Aimard’s path, and the results were all the more thrilling for it.

Salonen and the orchestra, meanwhile, provided shapely, precise accompanim­ent through all the concerto’s vicissitud­es. Most impressive was the slow opening of the middle movement, with its eerie, foglike whispers from the strings; the ensuing passages found Aimard in a long and eloquent dialogue with timpanist Edward Stephan.

The outer movements, with their stretches of boisterous upheaval, benefited from the orchestra’s robust sonorities and the crisp precision of Salonen’s conducting. The full recorded set, which will be Salonen’s first full album with the Symphony, is due for release at a later date on the Pentatone label. It promises to be a doozy.

The concert opened with “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” Ravel’s tribute to the Baroque, in an account that was charming but a bit blurry around the edges; principal oboist Eugene Izotov shone in the dizzying opening solo.

More forceful and focused were the 11 selections from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” that occupied the second half, in a suite assembled by Salonen. This is music that was a Thomas specialty (it was featured on his first recording as music director of the Symphony in 1996), and he favored a luxuriant silkiness.

Salonen’s approach to the same music, by contrast, was vigorous, sharp-edged and almost brusque, producing a red-hot theatrical explosion. “Young Juliet” depicted her less as a Renaissanc­e ingenue than a smart and capable Millennial; the “Death of Tybalt” scene unfolded with terrifying power. Salonen held the whole thing together with unswerving rhythmic clarity.

Before the Prokofiev began, members of the orchestra — who have been working without a contract since November — took a moment to enlist audience support for their efforts in the ongoing labor negotiatio­ns. Musicians had been greeting patrons before the concert with a green onepage leaflet outlining the union’s position; as they took the stage after intermissi­on, they silently held those pages in the air.

Management, meanwhile, had inserted a countersta­tement in the programs themselves. Clearly, the two sides have a lot of talking to do before the orchestra leaves for its planned European tour in early March.

 ?? Kristen Loken/HNP ?? Esa-Pekka Salonen (left), pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the San Francisco Symphony perform Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 2 in Davies Symphony Hall.
Kristen Loken/HNP Esa-Pekka Salonen (left), pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the San Francisco Symphony perform Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 2 in Davies Symphony Hall.

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