Colin Davis / Stephen Kovacevich

Bartók: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-3

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Stephen Kovacevich and Colin Davis' Philips recordings of Bartók's piano concertos are contenders for top honors in an already crowded field. Kovacevich was young and hungry when these recordings were taped in 1968 (No. 2) and 1975 (Nos. 1 and 3), and his performances are fiery in the extreme. From his slightly earlier Beethoven sonata recordings for EMI, Kovacevich was already celebrated as a virtuoso, but nothing could have prepared listeners for the sheer force of his playing here. There's nothing in these immensely difficult works Kovacevich can't toss off with panache, and he tears into them with undisguised gusto. His flair for bravura playing is offset by equal soulfulness in the central movements. Davis, who had already delivered outstanding recordings of Mozart, Stravinsky, and Tippet on Argo, turns in accompaniments for Bartók that are fully supportive of Kovacevich but also interesting, even arresting, on their own. With the BBC Symphony in No. 2 and the London Symphony Orchestra in Nos. 1 and 3, the orchestral playing here is consistently first-rate, just like the utterly transparent stereo sound remastered into translucent digital sound from Philips. Even if you have a dozen recordings of these works, you owe it to yourself to hear Kovacevich and Davis'.

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