Classical Album Review: Pierre-Laurent Aimard Plays Bartók’s Piano Concertos

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Ultimately, then, we’ve got something special here: a fresh take on some canonic works by a conductor and soloist whose bread-and-butter is this very fare.

Not many conductors record Béla Bartók’s three piano concertos twice. Then, again, not many conductors are Esa-Pekka Salonen. Since 2020 the music director of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), Salonen’s tenure seems to have picked up right where his predecessor Michael Tilson Thomas’s left off.

But Salonen is very much his own man, and among his specialties has been the music of early 20th-century modernists like Stravinsky and Bartók: a quarter-century or so ago and with his other California orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic), he taped these three concerti with Yefim Bronfman for Sony.

That set’s still available and doesn’t lack for urgency (in the first two concerti) or spirit (in all three, though, especially, the last). This one, in which Pierre-Laurent Aimard takes the solo spotlight, is, accountably, of a slightly different character.

The Concerto No. 1, for instance, evinces a lyrical quality that’s not always obvious in the music of Bartók. Indeed, to some degree, especially in the outer movements, Aimard and Salonen seem intent on taming the savageness of the composer’s 1926 effort.

The first movement unfolds with uncommon melodic fluency and an inviting grasp of the music’s motivic structure. So, too, the moments for songfulness in the finale. True, the central Andante is quietly, implacably rhythmic. But it’s lean textures, droll articulations, and cleanly projected counterpoint are of a piece with the rest of the reading.

In the Second Concerto, Aimard and the SFO’s wind section are terrifically locked in during the first movement: there’s an engaging sense of boisterousness and playfulness in their performance that, at times, echoes Stravinsky’s Petrushka. By way of contrast, the Adagio offers hypnotic, almost cinematic stasis, while the finale’s feisty, driving rhythmic density never devolves into a jumble.

It’s the Concerto No. 3, though, that’s the real revelation. Bartók wrote the piece for his wife, Ditta, and died before completing the orchestration. Despite his deteriorating physical state while composing the piece, there’s a naturalness and facility to Bartók’s writing in it that is fully worthy of, say, Beethoven or Ellington. And that characteristic comes across in the present performance with rare concentration.

The first movement is pure, elegant, Bach-like; in this context, its pristine textures intriguingly echo the nearly neoclassical approach Aimard and Salonen bring to the Concerto No. 1’s Allegro moderato. If the finale is a shade stately, at least its counterpoint is consistently crisp. And the Adagio religioso emerges with pristine delicacy.

Ultimately, then, we’ve got something special here: a fresh take on some canonic works by a conductor and soloist whose bread-and-butter is this very fare. It’s an undertaking that flatters all parties involved musically, technically, and intellectually. Best of all, it draws out the latent mellifluousness of Bartók’s writing, even when, outwardly, that’s at its most hard-edged.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.


  1. Joel A Weiss on August 28, 2023 at 6:43 am

    Excellent review. Look forward to hearing the recording.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts