April 2005

Bartók - The Piano Concertos
Krystian Zimerman, piano, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (No. 1);
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano, Berlin Philharmonic (No. 2);
Hélčne Grimaud, piano, London Symphony Orchestra (No. 3);
Pierre Boulez, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon 477 533
Format: CD
Released: 2005

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment *****

If anybody’s picture is on the cover of a recording of a piano concerto, it is usually either the composer’s or the pianist’s; in this case, though, it is the conductor’s. This is one of several releases highlighting Boulez on the occasion of his 80th birthday (March 26). Boulez has been associated with Bartók’s music for decades, and has recorded more than a few of the Hungarian master’s works more than once. These concertos were among the first Bartók works he performed, and he is quoted as regarding them as the "climax of his output." About 35 years ago he recorded all three of them for EMI with a single soloist, Daniel Barenboim. At that time Barenboim was definitely not associated with the music of Bartók, but in partnership with Boulez, he proved an effective advocate, and so do Zimerman, Andsnes and Grimaud now.

Indeed, one might say that all of them seem foreordained for their assignments here, and particularly Andsnes in the exuberant, celebratory Second Concerto. He gives the impression of great reserves of strength while holding nothing back in the way of the exultant athleticism that characterizes the outer portions, while not slighting the more introspective moments. Bartók himself was the soloist in the premieres of his first two concertos, and the high-level virtuosity both Andsnes and Zimerman bring to these works must remind us that he was a formidable performer who might have had a major career as a pianist if he had so chosen.

The last of the concertos, separated from its predecessors by more than a dozen years, was not for Bartók’s own use, but was his parting gift to his wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory, his onetime piano pupil and frequent partner in duo performances. These ranged from works of Mozart to his own Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, which he eventually recast as a double concerto. The Third Concerto was the last score he came close to finishing. Only 17 bars of orchestration had to be filled in after his death by his capable and devoted associate, Tibor Serly, whose next assignment would be assembling the Viola Concerto from sketches and shreds Bartók had left in a jumble. It is understandably a less demonstrative, more contemplative work than Nos. 1 and 2, though every bit as characteristic of its composer -- despite the thoroughly uncharacteristic "Allegro religioso" marking of the slow movement, which may have been Serly’s decision. Grimaud comes through with utter persuasiveness, keeping the listener’s attention on the music rather than on her playing -- and that is indispensable to this music, or to any music of real substance.

As the recordings, made between November 2001 and last October, all give us a well-balanced, realistic perspective, this package can be recommended without reservation. It joins the early-stereo performances on DG by Géza Anda with Ferenc Fricsay conducting, and the fairly recent Teldec CD by András Schiff with Iván Fischer. Paul Griffiths’s annotation provides an exceptional level of illumination.