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 N║1 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.