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Béla BARTÓK (1881 – 1945)
Piano Concerto No.1 (1926)a [23:16]
Piano Concerto No.2 (1930/1)b [27:04]
Piano Concerto No.3 (1945)c [25:49]
Krystian Zimerman (piano)a; Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)b; Hélène Grimaud (piano)c; Chicago Symphony Orchestraa; Berliner Philharmonikerb; London Symphony Orchestrac; Pierre Boulez
Recorded: Orchestra Hall, Chicago, November 2001 (No.1); Philharmonie, Grosser Saal, Berlin, February 2003 (No.2) and Jarwood Hall, London, October 2004 (No.3)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5330 [76:25]

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Bartók’s piano concertos are important milestones in his musical progress, and each of them was composed at a key point of his composing career. The First Piano Concerto was completed in 1926, after the composer had composed some important piano works such as the Sonata and the suite En Plein Air, in which he displays his newly found mature style. The First Piano Concerto abounds with what we have come to regard as Bartók fingerprints: angular melodic lines, nervous rhythms, imaginative writing for percussion, arresting sonorities and – above all – complete formal control. One of the most striking characteristics of his piano concertos is their intrinsic classical nature, for all their apparent novelty. Bartók also insisted that his concertos were for piano AND orchestra, which means that the piano parts – for all their virtuosity – are integral part of the musical fabric and that the orchestra plays as important a part as the soloist. In fact, one of the major difficulties in the first two piano concertos is the precise co-ordination between piano and orchestra. The First Piano Concerto belongs to what might be referred to as Bartók’s Fauvist phase. The thematic material is characterised by rugged energy and raw tone, particularly so in the opening movement and in the exciting third movement, whereas the central movement sounds like some ominous, heavy-threading dirge building up to a mighty climax.

The Second Piano Concerto, while much in the same vein as its predecessor, displays some more accessible thematic material, particularly in the brilliant, rousing fanfares heard in the first and third movements. The outer sections of the slow movement are typical Bartók night music, with delicate and mysterious string writing and softly evocative percussion, framing a more animated central section. The whole, however, is quite neatly structured, as Claire Delamarche rightly observes in her excellent notes (in French), in that the concerto is laid-out as an arch (quite typical of Bartók), i.e. first movement, Adagio, Presto, varied restatement of Adagio, third movement (actually a variant of the first movement in which that movement’s themes are restated in reverse order). The Second Piano Concerto clearly belongs to Bartók’s full maturity culminating in the marvellous Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste and the wonderful Sonata for two Pianos and Percussion, both being towering masterpieces.

The Third Piano Concerto, written for his wife Ditta Pasztory, is on the whole more straightforward, more lyrical and readily accessible. Some described it as Neo-classical or "feminine" and generally more traditional; but the music is as fine as anything else in Bartók’s mature output, and abounds with many felicitous thematic material. The opening of the first movement is quite beautiful, and a magical moment in the whole piece. So, too, is the Adagio religioso conceived along the same lines as the central movement of the Second Piano Concerto, viz. hymn-like mysterious outer sections framing a more animated central section evoking bird-song. The piece ends with a breezy, dance-like Rondo. As is well known, the composer did not live to complete the work which was duly completed by Tibor Serly. The Third Piano Concerto is, no doubt, one of his most endearing and attractive major works.

Generally, recordings of Bartók’s piano concertos are by the same pianist, orchestra and conductor (I came to love these works thanks to Fricsay’s recordings with Geza Anda for DG, now re-issued in CD format). Boulez obviously had another view of the problem, and chose three different pianists taking advantage of each soloist’s personal playing. Needless to say that all three soloists here play marvellously throughout, and I would not single any of them out, although I really liked Hélène Grimaud’s feline and delicate playing in the third concerto. Needless to say, too, that all three orchestra play beautifully for Boulez, although at first hearing I found the orchestral playing in the first concerto a bit too polished. I am glad to say that repeated hearings wiped this impression away. So, in short, this is a splendid release that is self-commending.

Hubert Culot

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