Bartok was one of Solti's specialties; the Hungarian conductor clearly identified with Bartok's wild Magyar enthusiasms. His outstanding contribution to this generous anthology of Bartok's concertante works (lacking only the orchestrated version of the "Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion" and the posthumously orchestrated Viola Concerto) is probably sufficient to justify purchase. Rarely does one hear such idiomatic Bartok from non-Hungarian ensembles. Folk-dance rhythms are infectiously lifted, contrapuntal textures emerge with crystalline clarity, and the exotic colors of Bartok's scoring are vividly conveyed. If anything is lacking it might be a certain sense of nocturnal mystery in the slow movements of the First and Second Piano Concertos, though the adagio religioso of the Third Piano Concerto conveys the requisite sense of rapture.
The two soloists give exemplary accounts of their respective concertos. Ashkenazy exploits the full range of pianistic color, to say nothing of percussive sonorities, without losing track of Bartok's contrapuntal and structural rigor. Chung plays with an ideal combination of technical bravado and expressive intensity. Like Ashkenazy, she manages to convey the unique synthesis of the visceral and the intellectual that characterizes Bartok's music at its best (and at least four of the works in this dual album do represent the composer at his best).
Of course one has preferences in these works. Superb though these readings are, I find Pollini's lighter touch more persuasive in the First and Second Piano Concertos, and I have always found Stern's patrician reading of the great Second Violin Concerto uniquely involving, and Bernstein's contribution probes more deeply behind the notes than that of any conductor I have heard in this work, including Solti.
The balance between soloist and orchestra is not ideal in the Second Violin Concerto (some important textural detail is nearly lost), but otherwise the recordings are as outstanding as the performances. Audiophiles will find that Decca, as always, can be counted on to project such colorful music with a characteristic combination of immediate impact and ambient warmth.
Strongly recommended--though I would avoid paying full price for what was, at least initially, intended as a lower mid-price reissue. Search for a new or used copy for under twenty dollars.