Whoever had the idea to have a noted Bartók conductor, Pierre Boulez, record all three of the Bartók piano concertos, using a different soloist and orchestra for each one, should get a medal. Not only were the three soloists picked carefully (or, at least I imagine that's the case; who knows, maybe they were picked by playing paper/scissors/stone!) but the style of each of the three was matched, more or less, to the sound produced by three of the world's greatest orchestras. The lineup is this: Krystian Zimerman and the Chicago Symphony for No. 1; Leif Ove Andsnes and the Berlin Philharmonic for No. 2; and Hélène Grimaud and the London Symphony for No. 3. In the muscular No. 1 both the sound of Zimerman and the Chicago are perfect. Zimerman, not a pianist who is generally thought of as a brio player, is more than capable of the almost brutal style required in that first concerto, and of course the Chicago is a match made in heaven with their incredible brass and incisive strings. Andsnes is also a brilliant player but he has a slightly rounder tone in his performance, and that's precisely what is needed. Although the Second is similar to the First, it has more lyrical moments and much greater thematic distinction. Andsnes molds his part masterfully. But best of all is the playing of the BPO. In this concerto there is much that would remind one of the middle-period, more mature Bartók: less brutality, more mystery. Think of the string writing in, say, 'Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta' and you will have an idea of what I mean. The Berlin strings shimmer. Bartók was dying when he wrote the Third and indeed it had to be finished by his student, Tibor Serly, who also finished the wonderful viola concerto. It was Bartók's legacy for his wife, soon to be his widow, Ditta Pasztory, herself a pianist. He died more or less penniless in New York and he wrote it for her to play in order to make some money after his death. I don't know, frankly, whether she did tour with it; I don't recall ever hearing. It is altogether more romantic, more tuneful (and, in the end, more popular) than the other two. Who better than Grimaud to play it? There have been many fine recordings of this concerto -- one of my favorites is that of Geza Anda, who recorded all three concerti; another is that by Martha Argerich -- but Grimaud is in that fine company. Her playing is marked by grace, tensile strength coupled with fluid phrasing, delicacy and a marvelous legato. In all three concerti Boulez has definite ideas which he is able to communicate to each orchestra involved. This one is a winner. TT=76:30 Scott Morrison
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