How, you might ask yourself, could Béla Bartók's concertos take up three whole discs? After all, he only wrote three piano concertos, two violin concertos, and a viola concerto, and altogether they'd take up pretty much exactly two discs. So how did the artist and repertoire people at EMI manage to fill out three discs here? In a word, they cheated. They've added not only the Concerto for Orchestra, arguably a fair call considering the nature of the work, but the Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin and the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, as well.
But they've done more than cheat; they've also dropped the first of the three piano concertos, which is inexplicable because they have two in their catalog: Peter Donohoe's edgy 1992 recording with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony, and Daniel Barenboim's muscular 1967 recording with Pierre Boulez and the New Philharmonia.
That issue aside, the results are mixed both in terms of performance and sound quality. Rafael Kubelik's swashbuckling 1958 account of the Concerto for Orchestra is followed by Kyung-Wha Chung's passionate, but not particularly persuasive, 1990 reading of the Second Violin Concerto with Simon Rattle. Sviatoslav Richter's fire-breathing 1969 Second Piano Concerto goes perfectly with Martha Argerich's hair-raising 1997 Third Piano Concerto, but the second disc then concludes with Dmitry Sitkovetsky's humdrum 1991 First Violin Concerto. The third disc concludes the incomplete survey of the concertos with Tabea Zimmermann's resolute 1989 Viola Concerto with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under David Shallon, but then moves on to amazing 1978 performances of Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin Suite and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra. While these may not be the greatest performances of the works ever recorded, they are brilliantly conducted, sumptuously played, and surprisingly affectionate performances that deserve to be heard by anyone who enjoys the music or admires the conductor.
Recorded in seven different halls in five different countries over a range of 39 years, the sound here understandably varies considerably from performance to performance, but is still consistently fine.