Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is totting up his "Complete..." collections as if there were no tomorrow. In 2009, he completed his multi-award-winning Complete Works for Piano by Debussy. Then, spring 2010 saw the first release in his complete Haydn's Piano Sonatas. Hot on its heels, he's gone and snuck in this complete piano concertos of Bartok, and it feels as much of a gem as his Debussy series did.
Bartok wrote his three piano concertos between 1926 and 1946, out of a need for repertoire when finances dictated he become a composer performer. Whilst he may have taken to the concert platform out of necessity, Bartok was a highly gifted pianist; Otto Klemperer, who conducted his second performance of Piano Concerto No.2 in 1933, said afterwards, "the beauty of his tone, the energy and lightness of his playing were unforgettable. It was almost painfully beautiful". Bavouzet's interpretation isn't far behind that enviable description.
The first movement of that concerto pays homage to Stravinsky with a sped-up version of the big theme that closes Firebird, and Bavouzet's own energy and lightness make the most of the jubilant, rhythmic writing. At times it's actually difficult to comprehend the fluid speed with which he plays the multitude of musical ideas that are interweaving and jostling for space with each other. It's a beautifully nuanced performance, brimming over with variety of touch and dynamic. Against, or rather in partnership with the music's rattling pace, his fingers are sharply percussive one moment, and gently rippling the next in a way which often brings Debussy to mind. The orchestra match him in their deft lightness, brightness and virtuosity.
In the mysterious sounding Adagio, which is imbued with the primeval spirit of, if not directly quoting from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, he enjoys the slower pace by harvesting every inch of expression to be found within the piano's natural sonorities. Piano Concerto No.1 of 1926 is as exciting a listen for all the same reasons, with the Allegro moderato's ragtime injections engagingly edgy. Fast-forward to Piano Concerto No.3 of 1946, composed as Bartok prepared for death, and his "Adagio religioso" entry feels like a prayer.