As Harris Goldsmith states in the 4-page essay that accompanies this CD, "Bela Bartok's works for piano and orchestra have an authority and individuality that bespeak first-hand knowledge and experience. Present-day musicians tend to forget that the Hungarian master was one of this century's greatest pianists - a keyboard virtuoso of incandescent brilliance as well as a unique, creative genius. Most of what he composed for the piano was tailored to fit his own persona and larger-than-life instrumental gifts."
There are a number of excellent recordings of these three great piano concertos, made by some of the most talented pianists in the world, from the benchmark 1961 recording by Bartok's Hungarian compatriot, Geza Anda, to more recent releases by other Hungarian pianists, Zoltan Kocsis, Jeno Jando, and Andras Schiff, to recordings by Martha Argerich and Sviatoslav Richter among others. In the end, selecting a favorite interpretation is ultimately a matter of nuances and individual preference.
Regarding the comments by the reviewer, Robert Estes, about the sound engineering on this CD, perhaps if a Telarc-like crystal-clear bright sound had been attempted on these three dynamic and powerful concertos, it might have yielded a sonic impression that would not necessarily be "front-row-center" but rather "in-your-face," with the listener rushing to adjust the volume control with each change from an allegro to an adagio movement, and back again. In fact, that is essentially the experience I had after following Mr. Estes' recommendation and ordering the recording of these concertos by Peter Donohoe, with Simon Rattle conducting. The sound was somewhat more clear and bright, but with the downside that on some sections, particularly those featuring percussion or horn instruments, the sound quality went beyond being clear to being, at least for me, uncomfortably sharp. Of course, someone else with a different sound system, and making their own adjustments to their graphic equalizer, might have a better listening experience with the Donohoe/Rattle recording. However, in addition, while I found the Donohoe/Rattle performance to be very good, even excellent, something about it, at least for me, lacked the inspirational, magnificent quality of this Bronfman/Salonen recording. These are admittedly subjective impressions, probably influenced by the type of stereo system, including graphic equalizer and type of speakers, and perhaps even by the acoustics of the room where one is listening to these performances. Nevertheless, having listened to each of these performances not once but several times, on my stereo systems at home, in the office, and in my car, I still prefer this version, by Bronfman/Salonen.
On the Bronfman/Salonen recording, the sound engineers have provided a sonic picture that places the listener not at front-row-center, but at about 20th-row-center, which is still a very good place to be. What may be lost in terms of a feeling of immediacy of the instruments is gained by an impression of the concert hall's spaciousness. As for the clarity of the recording, I was quite pleased. Every note in this inspired performance is captured, from the loudest, most percussive, rapid-fire fff fortissimo measures, resounding with earth-shaking power, to the softest, most gentle and slow ppp pianisimo measures, sounding like an aural impression of the touch of the softest silk.
Having recently bought Yefim Bronfman's recording of Beethoven's 3rd and 4th Piano Concertos, with David Zinman, and now his recording of Bartok's three piano concertos, have made me a Bronfman fan.
His performance of these Bartok concertos is stunning. Bronfman sails through the most technically challenging rapid passages, playing machine-gun-rapid successions of staccato chords and octaves with complete mastery and passion, and plays the adagio passages with the utmost finesse and beautiful sensitivity. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are also in top form, with the pianist and the orchestra in perfect balance and harmony.
Bronfman's fantastic pianistic pyrotechnics illuminate the beauty and energy of Bartok's music. He is a gifted pianist who gives a brilliant performance of these three concertos, evoking the whole spectrum of human emotion, from the power and exuberance of the allegro passages to the tender, romantic, wistful feeling of the adagio passage of the third piano concerto, written in the final year of Bartok's life, when he knew he was dying of leukemia and wanted to leave something to his wife, through this concerto, that would bring her some financial support after his death. The third piano concerto, especially the adagio passage, is a very moving musical statement of a dying man's love for his wife. Bronfman's performance of this movement, as of all the other movements of this and the two other piano concertos, is sublime. Very highly recommended. Total Playing Time = 75:40.