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This is an exciting cycle of Bartok's three piano concertos from Yefim (Fima) Bronfman and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen, and recorded in 1993/1994. This was the first recording of these works that I heard, back in 2001, and I have been taken with it ever since. Only now (9/3/13), having heard other recordings, can I appreciate just how great these performances are -- the most exciting I have yet to discover.
The sound is not all it could be -- it seems a bit thin and pinched. But this is no reason not to enjoy the thrills, which result partly because of a faster tempo, and partly due to Fima's exuberant playing. He makes me laugh with pure joy throughout these performances!
An excellent alternative to this disc is the 1996 recording of Andras Schiff and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, led by Ivan Fischer for Warner. The all-Hungarian team plays Bartok with a more elegant, stately, flair. Schiff's tone is superb, and the sound of the orchestra is fuller, more reverberant, and more detailed than this Sony disc. Schiff makes the difficult Bartok sound easy, but he has said of the popular Second Concerto: "[f]or the piano player, it's a finger-breaking piece. [It] is probably the single most difficult piece that I have ever played, and I usually end up with a keyboard covered by blood."
As Stravinsky so wisely said long ago, alternative interpretations of a score bring out all its potential. I for one would not want to be without Fima's high-energy recordings, but Schiff makes a great contrast.
Maurizio Pollini recorded the First and Second Concertos in 1977 with Claudio Abbado leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Pollini's is another top-of-the-line performance, and the Deutsche Grammophon engineering reveals a deeper ambience than the Sony or Warner. Pollini is masterful, and the CSO sounds great. However it is not directly competitive with the later Bronfman or Schiff recordings because it omits the Third Concerto. The 2007 reissue in DG's Grand Prix series includes instead the excellent "Two Portraits, op 5," with Shlomo Mintz on violin and Abbado leading the London Symphony Orchestra.
BARTOK AND HIS PIANO CONCERTOS
Bela Bartok was a great modernist, and very influential, but less so than his peers Stravinsky or Schoenberg because, as Milton Babbitt once complained, his innovations tended to be particular to each composition rather than a system like Schoenberg's 12-tone music. Bartok famously drew on Hungarian folk music, and his use of modal scales gives his music a uniquely odd quality in contrast to standard tonality, but he emphatically maintained that his music was tonal. The key was his mixing of modes, resulting in polytonality. What Bartok brought from the classical tradition was the strong influence of Liszt, Debussy, and Beethoven (thanks to the excellent November 1945 article from "The Musical Times").
Bartok performed the premieres of both the First and Second concertos. The premiere of the First was at the fifth International Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Frankfurt on July 1, 1927, with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting. The premiere of the Second was on January 23, 1933, also in Frankfurt, with Hans Rosbaud leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. The Third was written shortly before Bartok's death, and was premiered in Philadelphia by Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Sandor and Hungarian conductor Eugene Ormandy on February 8, 1946.
The First Concerto was considered quite spiky, modern, and difficult, and Bartok consciously set out to make the Second Concerto more performer and audience-friendly. On the second point he succeeded, especially with stronger melodic phrases. The Third Concerto is altogether more lyrical, more Romantic, less spiky and modern, basically the equivalent of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony of Bartok's piano concertos.
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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.