On top of that, he was an exceptional pianist. Otto Klemperer wrote of Bartók’s tone that it was “almost painfully beautiful”, often forgotten when pianists launch into Bartók’s triple fortes with a sledge- hammer.
The first two concertos seem to invite a harsh response from performers. No 1 (1926) is full of sharp edges. The Second, from 1930, is equally vivid and exciting, making greater use of folk music in its rhythmic and thematic turns of phrase. The Third (1945) is quite another creature: written for the composer’s wife to play when he was ailing (in fact, he did not live to complete the orchestration of the final movement) – it is comparatively mellow and lyrical. The tender chorale of the slow movement is one of Bartók’s most intimate and personal statements.
Any recording that fails to stress the contrasts between these pieces is missing something. I’m afraid that is the case here, even though Bavouzet’s playing is powerful and expressive; he can certainly take every technical challenge in his stride. Revered as a Debussy pianist, it may be that he is overcompensating in this starker repertoire.
The recording is to blame too: piano and orchestra are closely miked within a very resonant acoustic, crowding them and muddying the thick scoring which above all demands clarity. My recommendation remains with the crystal clear Boulez on DG.