This new release is a mixed bag to be sure, but how can one resist when it features three current luminaries of the keyboard and a conductor who has made a specialty of Bartok's music over the course of a long career. For Boulez, Bartok has always been a precursor of the avant-garde style that Boulez himself has pursued. Not surprisingly, Boulez tends to emphasize the spiky, dissonant, modernistic aspects of Bartok's music. But here, much to his credit, he seems content to play the role of accompanist, to provide firm but sympathetic support to his three soloists, each of whom has a very distinct, if not single-minded, approach to his or her chosen concerto.
Each of these works comes from a very different place. The First, written in 1926, is a bristling, mercurial, and rhythmically charged dynamo of a concerto that Bartok intended, at least in part, to showcase his own virtuosity. To its enormous difficulties, Krystian Zimmerman brings an ease and fluency that are sometimes startling. He is able to play this ever-shifting music at the very brisk tempos it demands without any loss of clarity or expression. In the first and third movements, the very detailed sense of interplay between piano and orchestra is especially revealing. One might well complain that Zimmerman's brilliance makes this abrasive, disruptive music too suave and comfortable. Which is to say, his performance is just the opposite of Pollini's (with Abbado and the Chicago) and Kovacevich's (with Colin Davis and the BBC), both of whom revel in the violence — perhaps too much so. But what sinks this performance is an uncharacteristically four-square approach to the second movement andante that robs it of its otherworldly strangeness and melancholy. At times, Boulez can be too literal-minded, and here Zimmerman (who should have known better) simply follows his lead.
In the Second Concerto, Bartok was trying for something more traditional, if not "lighter" and more "popular." Here one finds more variety and contrast, if not more humor, in the writing. But for Leif Ove Andsnes, the Bartok Second Concerto is essentially a dramatic work. Andsnes, whose recent recording of the Grieg and Schumann Concertos was justly praised, approaches the Second as a heroic, Romantic concerto. Though not even a virtuoso as impressive as Andsnes can transform Bartok into Brahms (or, perhaps, Tchaikovsky), it is nevertheless thrilling to hear him try. Wrongheaded as it is, this performance has an edge-of-the-seat quality that will short-circuit any objections — at least until it's over. It's then I find myself missing, say, the quirky humor of Bronfman and Salonen.
Grimaud's Third is a strangely disembodied affair, but that's not altogether inappropriate in this very late work, whose ambiguous tone hovers between a valedictory, if not elegiac, melancholy and good-humored, jaunty optimism. Grimaud certainly captures the inwardness of the concerto, its sense of ghostly reminiscence; and she does so with an elegance and tonal opulence that sometimes make Bartok sound as voluptuous as Ravel or Debussy. Still, she misses both the wit and the sudden eruptions of despair that are very much at the heart of this work.
Boulez and the three great orchestras give each pianist exactly what he or she requires: for Zimmerman, a fast-moving but very detailed sense of give and take; for Andsnes, a lot of surge and punch; for Grimaud, a chamber-like transparency. In each case, the sound follows suit. In the past, I've complained about the long-standing tendency of producers to make the solo instrument too prominent with respect to the orchestra, thereby falsifying the balances. Here, however, Helmut Burk and Christian Gansch favor a more natural perspective that provides both clarity and warmth.
Some Clear Recommendations
When Columbia University offered Bartok a choice of two positions in their Department of Music — the first as a professor of composition, the second as ethnomusicologist — Bartok didn't hesitate before choosing the latter. So it is well to remember that his genius springs directly from his lifelong study of what he was happy to call "peasant music." And that gives musicians from his neck of the central European woods a definite advantage, for they know more by instinct than intellect how it should go. And this is why I would still recommend the all-Hungarian versions of Geza Anda and Ferenc Fricsay (recently reissued by DG as part of their "originals" series) and Zoltan Kocsis and Ivan Fischer (on Phillips) as the clear recommendations in this music. Though Anda/Fricsay is more delicate and finely-etched, Kocsis/Fisher more roughhewn, if not swaggering, both communicate an authority and authenticity that make them essential listening in these concertos.
So where does that leave Boulez and his entourage? Not entirely out in the cold, I hope. Certainly if you're looking for only one version of the Bartok concertos, this probably won't be it. Then again, I'm not sure how you can get by with just one version of these remarkable and varied works. In which case, you may well wish to consider this program. Zimmerman's virtuosity, Andsnes' power and Grimaud's poetry are all compelling in their own ways. This might not be essential listening, but it is nonetheless richly entertaining, warts and all.