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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.


Scott Morrison
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on May 13, 2005
It's interesting to observe the evolution of the playing of Bartok's Piano Concertos since its first recordings. When we hear the old performances of Geza Anda and Ferenc Fricsay we can feel the difficulty they had to manage the changes of tempi and,at this time, the coordination between soloist and orchestra was very problematic . As the first two Piano Concertos of Bartok are among the most interesting concertos of all time, the story of its performances is of great importance. One recording that changed consistently the way of playing Bartok's Concertos was the one of the first and the second concertos with Claudio Abbado and Maurizio Pollini (DG- 1979) .Twenty Six years after, with this new integral of the Three Concertos, we can feel one new improvement, specially in the performance of the First. Zimmerman and Boulez are superb in every measure of this fascinating music. I never heard before all these terrible changes of tempi and these complicated rhythms so well done. Al the accents of the soloist are echoed by the instruments of the orchestra. The "acellerandi" in the first and the third movements are a miracle of clarity .I have no difficulty to say that this is the best recording of the Bartok's First Piano Concerto I ever heard , even when compared with that of Abbado and Pollini and that with Boulez and Barenboin.
The second Concerto is very well recorded too. Leif Ove Andsnes is one excellent Pianist.But we can't avoid to compare . He isn't a pianist so perfect as Zimerman is. But his reading of this difficult work is very interesting too. After a First Movement played in a cautious way we have a surprise: the central part of the second movement is played with a fire and energy, and with a irresistible precision .Not even Abbado and Pollini, in this specific moment , went so far , in terms of clarity .And the Third movement is played entirely in this way. One surprise: the accelerandos of the timpani at ms. 74 and 140 begin with a tremendous ritardando. I have never heard like this before, but the idea is excellent .If the Brass of the Chicago Symphony are the orchestral stars of the First Concerto, the timpanist of the Berliner Philhramoniker is the orchestral star of this Second Concerto.
After hearing these wonderful works , the Third Piano Concerto sounds a little deceiving . The simplicity of the writing can be explained by the special moment of the life of the composer. I believe that the Third Concerto is a good work, but when one hears this work after the two precedents,it is really desolator. Helene Grimaud plays this lyrical work with an elegant sonority. But she doesn't help too much to erase this impression. May be the recording with Zoltan Kocsis (Philipps) is the only one really convincing of this work. But even this weaker part of this CD has its preciosities: the Night Music of the second movement has one splendid balance of dynamic (specially between the piano and the xylophone) and the French pianist plays the Religious Choral with a fine sonority. Three Orchestras, three Pianists. Two kind of Concertos ( The No 1 and No 2 x the No 3). But the unity of this excellent CD is the clarity and rhythmic energy of Mr. Boulez. The miracle you will find in the performance of the First Concerto. But all the CD deserve to be heard with attention. You will discover a lot of magnificent details.
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on November 15, 2005
Some years ago I read Pierre Boulez was thinking about recording Bartok's Piano Concertos, in that moment I thought it could be a good collection but not really so great like finally it is. I have to say that in a first moment I had news of a recording with Krystian Zimerman for the three concerts; when I knew Andsnes and Grimaud were involved I thought it could be not so great like if Zimerman alone plays all. I was wrong again in my thoughts; Andsnes and Grimaud give them best and that's really very much.

First of all I have to mention the fact of there are three orchestras and three pianists, all wonderful musicians, like the three outstanding orchestras. It could be a problem for unifying the cycle, but we have a great conductor too, Pierre Boulez, a really specialist master in XXth Century and modern music, who have a very long relation with Bartok's music, as we can listen in his recordings for CBS and now with the outstanding new cycle for DG (that will be followed by his new recordings of Violin Concert Nº1 and Viola Concert, both of them with Berlin and very close to be released). The three concertos are really different between them in essence, the First and Second much more modern and aggressive and the Third much more "classical", lyrical and popular, much more easy to be listened. It's the way of a composer with a life not easy at all, who have lost his own lie in his country and who have to compose in order to survive. This could be a reason for understand the style of the Third concerto; a concerto that could be very far of Boulez's tastes but conducted full of style and charm by the French conductor. In fact, this piano series comes from a very hard and aggressive beginning in number One and decrease in that presence until the Third. Boulez is able to control that changing of style and the complete recording seems to be done with the pianist together discussing dynamics, style, tempi, technical possibilities...

Choosing the orchestras for this recordings it's not easy and Boulez did it really great. The First Concerto is played by an orchestra really full of presence and a very strong personality, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; which percussion and metal section is able to play exactly the style Bartok asks for this piece, very percussive and strong. Zimerman, of course, is a guarantee, as he is really one of the better pianist of our time, ¿the better one?, and he know Bartok's language. I heard him some years ago in A Coruña (Spain), playing this same First Concerto with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Galicia, under Victor Pablo Perez baton, and was amazed by his deep understanding of the work. Like in that concert, all is wonderfully done in this CD, specially the second movement, an Andante that remembers to me the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. The crystal-clear playing and conducting makes this movement quite impossible to repeat, a wonder. I know another very, very good recording played by Pollini and Abbado with the same orchestra. The Abbado's conducting is more aggressive and fiery, but not so technical and controlled like Boulez's one. Both are outstanding recordings. Like other reviewer wrote, Abbado opened a way and Boulez marks a developing in that way, a wonderful pair, anyway.

The Second Concerto is a beautiful surprise to me, as I've never heard Andsnes playing Bartok and I'm really amazed by the way he plays, WODERFULLY done every note, every phrase, every dynamic, tempo, pedal's use, echoes, rhythm... Again we have an incredible second movement which remembers to me Charles Ives very, very much in the way it's played, perfect done by the Berliner, with amazing strings and drums. I love the playing of all the orchestras, but I could say the Berliner Philharmoniker could be the best, simply listen it to believe. In this concert, a bit more lyrical than the First, but both in a similar style, Boulez shows a heart some people have doubts about if existed.

And this hearts sings opened in the Third Concerto, with the smooth London Symphony Orchestra and a very lyrical and perfect Helen Grimaud, who plays really beautiful in this last chapter, a very poetic piece with moments of really nostalgia of the lost days and of the lost land. Boulez understand the piece in the very right way, as it's technically well done and he don't lose at all the essence of that feelings, necessary for the piece be complete. Of course there's not the percussive piano you can listen in the first and second concertos, but Grimaud give her best in any moment and sometimes with an aggressive style if it's required. Another wonderful surprise listening her in this repertoire.

The recordings are very, very good, clean and well processed. The balance is marvellous and all the sections are perfect caught by the DG engineers.

Nowadays I have no doubts about this is my favourite CD for this Concertos, wonderful versions for some of the key works of Bartok, according with Boulez's words. Pollini / CSO / Abbado (DG) could be another possibility, very close in style and outstanding too.
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on May 27, 2006
The Interesting: Boulez brings out some of the more conventional harmonies of the First Concerto! and some of the modernisms of the Third! (is that a substituted bass drum stroke at the end of the third movement?) - - And a different soloist and orchestra for each concerto -

The Good: The concertos come off reasonably well (with reservations).

The Clean: The recordings bring out a lot of detail found in the scores (especially the Bachian counterpoint of the Second Concerto).

My personal feelings: Zimerman never seems to be totally in sinc with Boulez in the First Concerto, especially in the outer movements - Not that they're 'not' together; just a 'oneness' that seems to be missing - I feel the pianist making an effort to bond with the conductor and orchestra (did they get together just to make a recording? or did they perform this work and then record it? - I don't know) - But I think this is the best rendition of the three -

The Second Concerto is very exciting - that scale and trill at the very opening, the accelerando at the end of the first movement - the scale was fine, but the trill is competing dynamically with brass (recording levels?) - the accelerando at the end of the first movment didn't feel like one, either - - The beginning and end of the second movement is way too fast for my taste - The string sound (absent from the first movement) and rhythmic stasis should fascinate after the energetic first movement - it didn't - The middle section was appropriately fast, but not frenzied enough - - The third movement, a variation of the first, felt fore-shortened - maybe it was the juxtapositions of tempi (tricky in Bartok) that made it seem wanting - Leif Ove Andsnes' playing is exemplary throughout (the 2nd movement 'esp./pesante' a highlight)-

The Third Concerto is a bit of a disappointment. The first movement is beautiful - the end especially (it literally evaporates) - - But the second is too slow - And some of the improvisational qualties in the piano part after the middle section seemed very mannered to me - There's a natural flow missing - - The last movement lacks urgency - I don't know if this is the fault of Grimaud or Boulez.

An interesting disc. Technically superior. Musically variable.
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on April 24, 2012
This Bartok disc is unusual as it's no everyday event that a conductor records with three different orchestras and three different soloists, with the intent to release all the material on one disc. But what Boulez has done is doubly remarkable in that he has used only the best orchestras (Chicago, Berlin, London) and has three star virtuosos to work with (Zimerman, Andsnes, Grimaud). Boulez is a master of modern music; the only concern listeners may have is that he will be too clinical, unable to be directly emotional.

The 1st concerto is the most unmerciful of the concerti, full of grinding dissonances and highly percussive. Krystian Zimerman plays with conviction and finds a way to make the work enjoyable without smoothing out its many outbursts. Boulez leads Chicago and naturally there's no lack of might. This isn't a piece meant to be polite, and both conductor and soloist realize that full well. While Boulez is direct and to the point, I didn't sense anything clinical. Everything is crystal clear and direct. This is a dazzling performance with fully committed playing everywhere.

We find ourselves in Berlin for the 2nd Concerto along with Leif Ove Andsnes, a sensitive pianist with a technique matched by precious few. This concerto isn't as ominous as its predecessor, with traces of jollity in all the movements. Andsnes is the perfect pianist for the concerto, tackling its enormous challenges with ease while still having room for dynamism. Andsnes can come across as aloof, but here he's at home in modernist idiom, going on the attack and being sophisticated all at once. He and Boulez connect with such conviction it's hard to tell who's leading the way. The Berliners have as much power as Chicago, but they're more adventurous and individualistic. The thrill of hearing this concerto played with such vigor and enthusiasm is tremendous. Boulez lets every detail come across and the Berliners couldn't have done a better job; they're voiced impeccably. Every moment has its own unique quality, but there's always a feeling of vision. When such great musicians are giving their all and caught in marvelous modern digital sound, it's impossible to give too much praise.

The 3rd Concerto is the most light-hearted of them all. Helene Grimaud is the pianist along with the LSO. Here what catches the ear is beautiful phrasing. There is a lilting romantic quality to this performance that is ravishing. Grimaud is confident without sounding harsh. Some will think she's too graceful but I think there's value in finding love in the work. Boulez always maintains a strong sense of structure that balances out the feeling of fancy. I can see merit in a more aggressive approach, but I would certainly miss the heartfelt urgency witnessed here. Beautiful as it is, there's no sign of any weakness. Power is shown; it's just that there's always a lyric backdrop. As with the other concerti, conductor and soloist blend perfectly.

Boulez finds a way to imprint individuality into these concerti. What's so amazing is that he does so with different musicians in each case. He successfully keeps his own personality without fighting the flexibility caused by switching musicians.
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HALL OF FAMEon November 25, 2010
I am coming late to this widely acclaimed Cd, because I owned enough versions of all three Bartok concertos to satisfy me (especially the complete collection by Stephen Kovacevich and the all but forgotten pairing of the First and Third Concertos with the young Barenboim and Boulez on EMI). Better late than never, because Boulez and his three star soloists soar high over their rivals. I concur with the reviewer who spots the reading of the First cto. by Zimerman as the star of the show. He plays with a combination of dazzling technique, alertness, and intellectual acumen that could be matched only by Boulez, that miracle of an octogenarian. Together they clarify the work technically and then go on to give a real interpretation, surmounting every hurdle with such ease that I was astonished from beginning to end. The CSO plays magnificently and is captured in very close, highly detailed, state-of-the-art sound by DG.

Moving to Berlin for the Second Concerto, we get the same vivid, close-up miking, and like Zimerman, Andsnes doesn't use the percussive piano writing as an excuse for pounding. He plays with force but real refinement, and DG has blended the soloist perfectly with the orchestra, where the woodwind writing in particular shows a great advance in Bartok's orchestration, which achieves a mastery comparble to Stravinsky's. I'm not sure I could easily tell the Berliners apart from the CSO without knowing which was which in advance; both orchestras play at a level of thrilling virtuosity. For me, this is andsnes's greatest recording, and I would place his reading easily ahead of Pollini's with Abbado from 1979.

Because the Third Concerto is the most popular of the three, there is abundant competition. As in that other masterpiece from Bartok's dying years, the idiom is more approachable, and there is abundant scene painting, color, and atmosphere. We've moved to London, and although Helene Grimaud's piano is miked as closely as in the previous works, the London Sym. sounds a bit farther back to me -- it's a minor difference, though. One could easily mistake Grimaud for Andsnes here with her rounded phrasing and full tone. Other pianists etch their part more incisively, but this work is adaptable to a more lyric, even romantic approach. In every way Grimaud and Boulez excel, and since the conductor is the common thread to all three concertos, the credit goes to him for bringing so much light and intelligence into works that have become familiar to any lover of twentieth-century modernism.

In the past I've had criticisms of boulez's Bartok, finding some of it hard-edged and clinical, with not enough vitality and heart. Those issues vanish here. I hardly dare to hope that I will ever hear the like of these performances again.
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on March 28, 2016
There’s a freedom to the music of Bela Bartok, a willingness to cut loose from the moorings of Brahms, Mozart, and even Beethoven, to let go and allow the tides of emotions to hold sway. Bartok expresses a wide range of feelings, from quietude and brooding resignation, to unbearable pain and strident outrage. In doing so, Bartok allows us to know something of himself, to feel the pride of being a Hungarian, and to know something of his sorrow and pain during his county’s most turbulent times, from the horror of the communist takeover of the 1920s to the devastating Nazi purges of the 1940s. Bartok finally had to get away, and with his wife resettled in the United States where, at last, his music gained wide-spread acceptance. Bartok’s three piano concertos are quite different from one another. They're three shades of the composer's genius.

The first piano concerto was composed in 1926, when Bartok was exploring relentless driving rhythms. In his hands, the piano becomes a percussive instrument. The concerto is dissonant, but not in the way other 20th-century composers used dissonance. Dissonant notes are added to chords to increase their pungency, to give them a sharp and snappy sound quality. There is no need for resolution, because the dissonance does not work as harmony but rather as color. The middle movement is a decided change of pace, a relaxing of the percussive elements, of gentle textures in which the tone of the piano seems to matter more than the actual notes. The piece ends with a rush of driving, repetitive rhythms.

The second piano concerto was composed in 1930-31. Bartok’s instrument was the piano, and this concerto was his showpiece while touring Europe and America. It’s expressive of his native Hungary, particularly of Hungarian folk music, which he had been recording, cataloguing and studying since the turn of the century. Although there are no overt quotations in the concerto, the writing is as close to the folk traditions as those Bartok compositions that actually quote folk tunes. It's a dissonant work, complex, brooding, with strains of melody, like rays of sunlight shining through the agitated clouds. The second piano concerto is among Bartok’s greatest works.

The third piano concerto was composed in the U.S. and was completed within days of Bartok’s death, in 1945. He wrote it for his wife—a concert pianist in her own right—to play and earn a living after his death. A simpler and more tonal work, it’s reflective more of Gershwin’s urbane music than Bartok’s Hungarian folk music. Indeed, you can hear strains of vibrant Manhattan, and of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. That said, the second movement is based on the slow movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet Number 15 in A Minor, Opus 132. This is the movement in which Beethoven sings a hymn of praise after having recovered from a serious illness. Bartok’s hymn is always in the piano, slow and religious in feeling. It’s kinship with Beethoven’s quartet is more spiritual than melodic.

About this CD—it’s brilliant. Pierre Boulez is a decided Bartok specialist and clearly relishes conducting these works. Piano Concerto no. 1 was recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Kristin Zimmerman as soloist; Piano Concerto no. 2 with the Berlin Philharmonic, with Leif Ove Andsnes as soloist; and Piano Concerto no. 3 with the London Symphony Orchestra, with Helena Grimaud as soloist. Splendid performances and warm atmospheric sound.
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on March 23, 2007
Even today Bartok remains a controversial composer, but these latest performances of three of his most seminal and exhilarating works must surely convince any doubters. The unifying link in the three, with different orchestras and different soloists is Pierre Boulez and he must take great credit for having brought out the individual character of these three fine works to the full. He is a master of precision and skill and has produced three superlative performances in very different circumstances.

My favorite of the three has to be the Second, widely regarded as a Bartok's finest Concerto. For the soloist this is not so much a test of technique as of physical force and endurance with its page after page of "doubled" writing. Leif Ove Andsnes meets the challenge perfectly and this is one of the most dazzling performances of any piece of music on record I have ever heard by both soloist and orchestra (Berlin Philharmonic). But the second is not just merely virtuosity and I would like you to hear the inner movements of this challenging piece especially carefully. This a piece of music you can listen to again and again. It will always leave you behind, but never give up the chase.

The third Concerto requires a somewhat different approach and I note that Boulez chose to record this with Helène Grimaud rather than one of the more flamboyant male soloists. Bartok wrote this piece specifically for his wife, Ditta Pasztory, and it is altogether a softer, more tender piece. The 'night music" slow movement is wonderfully done and I can't imagine this lovely and underrated piece ( whatever nasty cynic said he had composed this merely for cash?) ever being better performed.

The first concerto is a relatively early work and full of boyish energy indeed violence. Although musically it's probably the baby of the three, Krystian Zimmerman and the LSO give it "full welly" and it's a very engaging result. Altogether- strongly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon February 8, 2005
This one is a keeper. The three concertos are delivered with an intensity and a passion that belies the fact that three orchestras, three different recording studios, three different soloists were pulled together to create a seamless articulation. Boulez, to his credit, holds down the center and this remains a wonder to listen to.

Taken sequentially, it is an ideal program. Zimmerman tackles the first concerto with the technical prowess it requires. so much so that that the second seems to flow as a logical counterpoint. By the time you reach Helene Grimaud's poetic take on the third, you will find yourself aware how much these artists have delivered Bartok's life story. It simply is sublime and inspiring.
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on December 30, 2012
Zimerman is definitely one of my top 5 pianists, however I feel as if his style is less suited for Bartok's 1st. Of course his recording was brilliant, however it was still missing power that I have heard in other recordings. Regardless this is a wonderful CD and I highly suggest purchasing it, since I have no specific other CD to offer as a "better" option. No. 2 and 3 are great and I see nothing wrong with the recordings supplied with Andsnes on the 2nd and Grimaud on the 3rd.
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