Bartók
Piano Concerto No.1
Piano Concerto No.2
Piano Concerto No.3
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Berliner Philharmoniker
Pierre Boulez

Hélène Grimaud (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Concerto No.1 recorded in November 2001 in Orchestra Hall, Chicago
No.2 recorded in February 2003 in the Grosser Saal of the Philharmonie, Berlin
No.3 recorded in October 2004 in the Jerwood Hall, London
CD No: DG 477 5330
Duration: 76 minutes
Reviewed: February 2005
This is a CD that seemed unlikely to appear – at least in its original plan. It must be a decade or more since it was mooted that Krystian Zimerman would record Bartók’s three piano concertos with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. Nothing happened, or nothing seemed to, but any delay could have been due to Zimerman looking to record again bars that he deemed unsatisfactory. However, it turns out that Zimerman doesn’t actually play Bartók No.2. So this concerto ‘project’ has finally turned out ‘one to a part’ – a different pianist and orchestra for each concerto, the one constancy being Pierre Boulez.
Despite three each of pianist, orchestra and recording venue, and two each of recording producers and engineers (if only one ‘tonmeister’), the sound quality is remarkably consistent, and the three orchestras respond similarly to Boulez’s characteristic concern for clarity.
Zimerman in No.1 is occasionally balanced too closely (and thus not always meshing with the complex orchestral design), and the Chicago Symphony’s tuttis, although equally tangible, have a slight ‘after-sting’ in Orchestra Hall’s acoustic. Zimerman’s pianism is technically honed, of course, and his balancing of chords and his ‘voicing’ of notes is immaculate. The first movement, though, is a little contained, its fire slightly sacrificed for precision. The processional that is the slow movement, hypnotic and strange, is superbly done, the piano and percussion marching with sureness (too much?) with the woodwinds introducing some humanity (the oboe gratifyingly American-sounding). The finale, despite not enough from the bass drum to really underpin the pounding rhythms, has a spirit and an attention to detail (not least Boulez’s exotic concerns for woodwind lines) that carries the music inexorably to a scintillating conclusion. En route, beginning at 3’52”, the glimmer of a folksong and some exquisite violin commentary is beautifully realised; what follows is a romp, but never to the detriment of lucidity.
Leif Ove Andsnes’s refined pianism isn’t always to the good in Concerto No.2, the soloist’s opening flourish not quite commanding enough and he gets a bit drowned under a welter of woodwind spray. But this isn’t a balance problem, it’s more to do with assertiveness, and Boulez is uncompromising in projecting orchestral detail (if not always the marked sounds of side drums, with or without snares). The opening movement is scored without strings. When these instruments make an ethereal entrance to announce the slow movement they seem to do so from behind the winds and brass (similar to a Proms performance many years ago with Peters Frankl and Eötvös). Of course these Berlin sessions would have been pragmatically arranged, the strings not in attendance for the first movement, but a concert-hall balance seems not the maxim here; after the first movement, woodwinds and brass are afforded more space and, in the finale, Andsnes has more presence; too much, actually. Although Andsnes comes more into his own for the first-movement cadenza, his warm and rounded sound remains a doubt in this music. However, the piano’s gnarled musings in the Adagio are gripping (although the strings at 2’15” needed to be re-taken or better edited), and Andsnes’s contribution to the spectral, scherzo-like interlude, here effectively highly-charged, is both daredevil and crisply articulated. In the finale, despite the piano’s closeness, Boulez once more distils a welter of pertinent details, although some Rite-like points of emphasis are a surprise, and there’s no lack of heartfelt reflection before the coda.
The recording of No.3 is the most recent, recorded the morning after a memorable Barbican performance. The acoustic of Jerwood Hall in LSO St Luke’s proves very agreeable; indeed, this is the best sound and also the most completely satisfying performance. The lyrical asides and chiselled rhythms of the first movement are tinged with sadness, which is something that Hélène Grimaud and Boulez bring out very touchingly and without disturbing Bartók’s considered structures. Time and again Boulez sets in relief a sliver of sound or sustains a rhythmic pattern in the most understanding way, and Grimaud plays with fire, sensitivity and spontaneity. The Adagio religioso is especially moving here, played from the heart by Grimaud and directed with intensity by Boulez; and the finale combines exuberance with finiteness. Quite what a bass drum stroke is doing on the final chord is another matter, though. Bartók’s friend Tibór Sérly orchestrated the final 17 bars; there’s no bass drum in the score (or on Boulez’s 1967 EMI recording with Daniel Barenboim)…
A fascinating release, then, with much that is compelling and illuminating. The Grimaud/Boulez partnership proves particularly special.

 

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