Bartók Concerto for Orchestra; 3 Village Scenes; Kossuth
Hearing this superb CD reminded me of a letter published in our Awards 1998 issue (page 6) where Mr Michael Scott recalled how, according to his local record dealer, Bartok’s music ‘doesn’t sell’. If ‘sounding too modern’ is the problem, then I would recommend that Mr Scott’s dealer sample Bartok’s youthful Kossuth, as enjoyable a tone-poem as any save for Strauss’s or Liszt’s best, lyrical and dramatic, especially in the eighth section (track 9, from 10'16''), where perky bassoons prompt a head-on confrontation by poking fun at the Austrian national anthem. Up till now, Herbert Blomstedt’s excellent San Francisco recording for Decca has reigned supreme, but Fischer and his orchestra steal a lead on Blomstedt at virtually every juncture. Solos in all departments are highly distinctive, while tutti passages have an earthy, upfront quality that lends extra fibre to Bartok’s textures, whether the thrusting strings at 2'04'', the sharply etched woodwind figurations at 4'58'' or the
Bartok completed his five Village Scenes (originally for voice and piano) in 1924, orchestrating three of them two years later at Koussevitzky’s suggestion. First-timers might notice a certain similarity between Bartok’s dazzling instrumentation and Hindemith’s for his First Kammermusik, composed in 1922. Both are remarkable, with Bartok placing a doleful, slightly unsettling ‘Lullaby’ between a frisky ‘Wedding’ and a hyperactive ‘Lad’s Dance’ (a sure-fire potential hit on its own terms: Classic fM please note). The Slovak Folk Ensemble Chorus (all ladies) squeal their hearts out for the wedding and Fischer keeps Bartok’s hot-foot syncopations alive and kicking. A pity that Philips fail to include texts and translations.
As to the Concerto for Orchestra, again it is the flavour of the performance that wins the day. I think in particular of the subtle portamento that spices the string line at bars 52-3 (2'36'') of the first movement, and the sombre colouring – specifically from the horns, cellos and basses – near the end of the movement, at 8'58''. Fischer is a dab hand at shaping and inflecting the musical line, and his characterization of the ‘Giuoco delle coppie’ – paced, incidentally, at the prescribed crotchet=94 – is second to none. He sails into the movement’s ‘brass chorale’ trio without a hint of a pause and invests the ‘Elegia’ with the maximum respectable quota of passion (just try the searing string entreaties at 2'01''). The ‘Intermezzo interrotto’ dances to a few added accents and, beyond the ‘Leningrad Symphony’ rumpus and its rasping trombones, some exquisite muted string playing (marked Calmo, at 2'53''). The finale is a riot of sunshine and swirling skirts, except for the mysterious – and notoriously tricky – piu presto coda, with its rushing sul ponticello string choirs, which Fischer articulates with great care. One senses that the players are being driven to the very limits of their abilities, which only serves to intensify the excitement. While not meaning to sound like an Ivan Fischer ‘groupie’, I am delighted to welcome yet another winner from this wonderfully responsive orchestra.
Philips’s dynamic sound frame works best in Kossuth and the Village Scenes, though most of the Concerto also sounds excellent. My only complaint is of a marginally flat brass chord in the finale (at 8'26'') and a quiet, short-lived low electronic hum in the same movement (from 3'45''). Otherwise, a clear front runner, I would say, with Blomstedt (Kossuth and the Concerto) as a worthy ‘second’ and with Reiner, Dorati and the mono Fricsay offering the best mid-price options for the Concerto. As to the present release, Mr Scott’s record dealer should keep it active in the shop’s CD tray. Once heard, it is unlikely to remain in stock for long.'