Krystian Zimerman, Leif Ove Andsnes, and Helene Grimaud, piano; Pierre Boulez, Chicago Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, and London Symphony Orchestra. DG B0003885-02.
I know that a huge number of people prize the conducting of Pierre Boulez, but I have most often found his style a little too cold, calculating, and distant for my taste. Nevertheless, in dealing with the three piano concertos of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945), that type of approach may be just what's needed, especially in the First Concerto.
The thing that makes this album unique, besides Boulez's typically analytical manner, is that a different soloist and orchestra perform each of the three concertos. I'd like to think that Boulez handpicked each artist and each ensemble to match each piece of music, but I can't think of any easy connections the conductor may have made. I rather believe that Boulez and DG just wanted to do something different to sell discs. But what do I know.
Be that as it may, to my ears Zimerman and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra bring off the First Concerto (1926) best of the lot. The First is not the most smiling work in the world, full of hard edges and blunt percussives, but it's a work that Boulez wrings the most out of with his careful, methodic technique. The audio engineers help him along these lines by using somewhat close miking and a relatively dry acoustic. The result is not at all edgy or severe, however, because the DG engineers manage a degree of soft warmth, too. Along with a clear and exceptionally clean soundstage, the results are quite soothing, given the austerity of the music itself.
The Second Concerto (1933) is a kind of contrasting bookend to the First, much less weighty and rigid; it actually has discernable rhythms and an overall jauntier demeanor to counteract the coolness of the First. However, with Leif Ove Andsnes and the Berlin Philharmonic, it is not quite as lively as Zoltan Kocsis's performance for Philips, which tends to bring out more of the work's high spirits.
The Third Concerto (1945) fares better with Kocsis, too, because although it is the lightest of the three, Helene Grimaud and the LSO on the DG disc do not necessarily play it that way. Bartok wrote the Third at the very end of his life, not even finishing the last few bars, perhaps as a way of showing the world that he had softened considerably from his younger, more defiant days; yet Grimaud doesn't quite catch the core of Bartok's newfound melodic normalcy. Perhaps this is the influence of Boulez trying to tie all three concertos too closely together; I don't know.
In any case, sonically the three pieces of music appear remarkably alike, given that DG recorded them in diverse locations over a period of several years (2001-2004). Still, when compared to the Kocsis recordings for Philips, none of has quite the same bloom or energy. Maybe it's not needed.