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

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1, Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3
PERFORMER: Peter Donohoe (piano); CBSO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 7 54871 2 DDD
Who can do full justice to the diversity of Bartók’s three piano concertos? The first treats the piano as a percussion instrument, hammering out repeated rhythms with primitive energy. No. 2, written in 1930/31, is less aggressive, more colourfully scored and lighter in tone (by the composer’s own admission), while No. 3, his last completed work, written in 1945, is visionary in mood and transparent in texture.

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What they do have in common is an equal sharing of roles between soloist and orchestra; and as in their other recordings, Simon Rattle and Peter Donohoe prove themselves to be ideal partners, brilliantly assisted by spectacularly clear sound.

I was hooked right from the start of No. 1 (1926): thumping timpani, pounding piano octaves, and superbly characterful woodwind solos pull the listener straight into the drama. Donohoe also possesses a lighter touch, as in the slightly macabre slow movement of No. 1, or the playful figurations at the start of the Third Concerto. The City of Birmingham strings excel themselves both in the sinuous tread of the Second Concerto’s slow movement (a real pianissimo), and in the beautiful Adagio religioso of No. 3.

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Perhaps Donohoe might have been a bit more indulgent towards the expressive character of this movement: others may find his coolness more appropriate than I did. But in any case this is an outstanding release. Stephen Maddock