Pentatone continues in seemingly misguided directions with this recent CD release. It is a joint production with the San Francisco Symphony, recorded during live performances - a fact which is not disclosed anywhere on the cover art and is only discovered when reading the technical details in the enclosed booklet. And judging from the average recorded sound, I presume the engineering was performed solely by the local symphony team (perhaps for a local radio broadcast) and Pentatone is merely distributing it under their own logo. And one wonders why?
Further, as has been par for the course lately from Pentatone, this is a standard CD. Once the Classical industry leader in SACD releases, Pentatone rarely produces them anymore, apparently abandoning the format for (presumably) economic reasons.
But in this case, the recording sounds so dull, SACD wouldn’t have helped it anyway. Nor would it have helped the hum-drum performances. The playing from all involved is so pedestrian and dispirited, one would never know these are taken from live concerts if not stated in the fine print in the booklet. Tempos are sluggish and the music-making is perfunctory.
It’s not really necessary to go into much detail with this. I can summarize by observing first and foremost the plodding and unimaginative piano playing. But it’s not all Aimard’s fault; Salonen draws precious little fire or energy from his orchestra. He took over as principal conductor in 2020 and it didn’t take long for him to conform the orchestra into the all-familiar, anonymous, homogeneous, highly efficient orchestral playing standards typical today. (I miss Michael Tilson Thomas already.)
And the recorded sound seals the deal. Confined within a stuffy acoustic, the orchestra lacks color and sparkle, and dynamics fail to expand - even on climaxes.
Am I being too hard on this new release? Nope. Grabbing a random recording from my shelves for a quick comparison, I loaded into the player the 2010 Chandos CD of the same works played by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Gianandrea Noseda conducting and instantly encounter an entirely different world. We now hear Bartok fully realized, with bite, incisive articulation and energetic involvement, rather than some relaxed semblance of it. Also, the recorded sound is gloriously open, atmospheric and impactful - replete with a full dynamic range, in contrast to that heard on Pentatone.
I’ve said it countless times before: the conductor in a concerto can make all the difference. And that fact is clearly demonstrated here. Not only is the BBC Philharmonic under Noseda far more engaged and involved in the readings on Chandos, the pianism is in a completely different class as well. Bavouzet brings enormous character and characterization to the solo part - playful here, dramatic there, alternating vigor and delicacy to bring out endless musical nuances and fascinating inner details. His playing of these works is simply dazzling. (I had forgotten just how good this recording is.) Going back to Aimard, the piano playing just sounds labored - and utterly boring in comparison, exacerbated by slower tempos in all 9 movements. (The program’s overall playing time is 6 minutes longer on Pentatone than on Chandos.)
In sum, if you’re in the mood for some invigorating Bartok, this recording isn’t likely going to satisfy.