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Piano Concertos 1 and 2
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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat, Op. 10 (1911-12) [15:56]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26 (1921) [29:05]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz 119 (1945) [24:44]
Martha Argerich (piano)
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal/Charles Dutoit
rec. 16 and 18 October 1997 (Op. 26) and 29-31 October 1997 (others), L’Eglise de St. Eustache, Montréal. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 2285312 [70:12] 
Experience Classicsonline

EMI has reissued a series of its classic recordings at mid-price all of which were praised by the Gramophone and Penguin Guides. The disc under review here is part of that series. It is interesting to note that in the current Penguin Guide this recording does not receive the accolades that some of its competitors in all three works do, although it is generally given a positive spin. No matter. Any performance by Martha Argerich is cause for celebration or at least a high level of interest. This one is no exception. She has always shown a real affinity for Prokofiev, and her Bartók is no slouch either. As to be expected, she is partnered extremely well by Dutoit and the Montréal orchestra. What’s there not to like! Well, if there were no other recordings of these works to be had, one could be very satisfied. However, in all three concertos, especially the “Thirds,” there is plenty of competition.

In Prokofiev’s First Concerto, among Argerich’s strongest competition are Ashkenazy/Previn on a Decca Double of all five concertos and Kissin/Abbado (DG). Argerich finds more lyricism in the concerto than does Ashkenazy, but less brilliance. Nevertheless, her pianism is pretty astonishing throughout. The slow movement is especially lovely. I haven’t heard the Kissin recently, but recall being impressed by it when it was first issued. Argerich and the orchestra are well balanced here as they are in the other two concertos, and Dutoit for the most part provides exemplary support by allowing the music to speak for itself. 

The disc ends with Prokofiev’s Third, one of Argerich’s signature works. Her famous recording with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic for DG is still available and for most listeners will probably be the greatest competition for this one. It is a scintillating performance that does not let up. If the newer one seems more relaxed, it brings more variety to the central, slow movement variations and more romantic warmth to the big tune in the finale. Nevertheless, the excitement produced in the earlier encounter with the work is never quite reached here. That 1967 recording still sounds amazing. Argerich adds about two and a half minutes to the later performance, which is partly responsible for this impression. Both accounts are superior to almost anyone else’s in this particular work. 

I was less taken with her Bartók, which is sandwiched between the two Prokofiev concertos on the CD. The competition is even fiercer for this work. Although she holds her own as far as her technical mastery is concerned, I didn’t sense the same sympathy that she shows for Prokofiev. My yardstick for this work, as for Bartók’s other two piano concertos, remains the classic recording by Géza Anda and Ferenc Fricsay recorded in 1959 for DG and still sounding fresh today. True, the recorded sound has begun to show its age, but the performances carry all before it. There is something instinctive about the way native Hungarians bring out the Magyar rhythms in Bartók’s music that eludes most other performers. A recent recording of all three concertos on DG with three different pianists and orchestras, all conducted by Pierre Boulez is instructive here. While I admire all three pianists (Kristian Zimerman, Leif Ove Andsnes, and Hélčne Grimaud) and am generally taken with the performances, I always go back to Anda when I want to hear the real thing. Argerich, however, compares well with Grimaud, and anyone wanting these particular works on one CD need not hesitate.

This disc can be recommended, then, particularly for the Prokofiev and for all Argerich fans. I have never heard her give less than a sterling performance. Indeed, she does not disappoint here. Julian Haylock’s notes in the accompanying booklet are informative and succinct.

Leslie Wright


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