Bartok: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: DG Archiv
ALBUM TITLE: Bartok Piano Concertos
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3
PERFORMER: Krystian Zimerman, Leif Ove Andsnes, Helene Grimaud, Chicago SO, Berlin Phil, LSO, Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 477 5330

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Bartók’s orchestral works have long been part of Pierre Boulez’s repertoire in the concert hall and on disc: he recorded all three of the piano concertos in the 1960s, the First and Third with Daniel Barenboim, the Second with Jean-Bernard Pommier.

This new collection forms part of the parcel of new releases with which DG is celebrating Boulez’s 80th birthday, though it is odd to find that these recordings feature three different pianists and three different orchestras. That mix-and-match approach turns out to be the weakness, too, for the disc opens with an account of the First Concerto from Krystian Zimerman that is easily the best on record, setting a standard that neither Leif Ove Andsnes in the Second nor Hélène Grimaud in the Third can approach.

With Boulez and the Chicago Symphony on top form, too, Zimerman makes an overwhelming case for the First Concerto as the finest of the three. He is in command of every detail of Bartók’s tempestuous piano writing, alive to every flickering expressive nuance, and shaping the three movements as seamless and perfectly logical arcs; the balance between piano and the orchestra is perfectly judged, too.

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In the Second, Andsnes is fine enough technically, but the performance lacks bite, not helped by a recording that over-emphasises the orchestra, so that one ends up admiring the pungent detail with which Boulez and the Berlin Philharmonic surround the piano more than the piano playing itself. Pollini and Abbado provide a more democratic partnership in that work, just as Zoltán Kocsis for Philips finds more of the poetry in the Third Concerto than Grimaud manages with Boulez. He has never been a great fan of the work and it shows; everything is neat and tidy, but a spark is missing. Andrew Clements