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.