BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra. Dance Suite
How many labels still offer such generous repertoire-driven selections in physical format? Some years after Chandos released his successful Bartók miscellany with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (1/14), Edward Gardner is back with an 80‑minute sequel featuring his own Bergen Philharmonic. He even has a star guest whose Chandos catalogue includes abundant Bartók. Only Hungaroton can hope to trump that – Barnabás Kelemen offers the alternative endings for both Rhapsodies with Zoltán Kocsis and the Hungarian National Philharmonic whereas James Ehnes gives us only the one for Part 2 of the First Rhapsody – but then the works are differently coupled across two discs as listed below.
The Canadian virtuoso has already set down Bartók’s Violin and Viola Concertos (11/11) and the two Rhapsodies in their violin-and-piano versions (3/12) so he could scarcely be more familiar with the idiom. His admirers will be delighted to have the Rhapsodies in orchestral guise while knowing not to expect him to treat the notation of the First with the freedom of Joseph Szigeti and the composer himself in their Library of Congress recital (Pristine, 5/13). Forget too Yehudi Menuhin’s peasant grit with Pierre Boulez in the late 1960s (Warner, 4/16), let alone the bendy pitch and intensified, ‘in-your-face’ vibrato of Kelemen and Kocsis. Ehnes and Gardner bring a more poised eloquence.
The main course is the ubiquitous Concerto for Orchestra, something of a party piece for the conductor, who directs his live renditions without a score and achieves a wonderful transparency. At the same time, those accustomed to Hungarian music-making may expect a little more passion and paprika in the mix. Although Gardner’s tempos are not exactly sedate, he usually gives the material more space than Kocsis. The sonic perspective is also relaxed, conveying the impression of a sizeable hall but dampening the muscularity of the music-making. Boasting assertive woodwind and effervescent, un-grainy strings, the orchestra nevertheless acquits itself brilliantly. No one could complain of a lack of character in the second movement’s woodwind couples even if the deadpan central chorale lacks flavour. In the ‘Elegia’ the precise articulation of the strings is complemented by penetrating, rather shallow brass timbres. The fourth movement finds Gardner unearthing less obvious melodic layers beneath the irregularly flowing big tune.
The Dance Suite is lighter on its feet in another reading notable for the exposure of unsuspected undergrowth. The surface is elegant, even glittery. For better or worse, Gardner’s meticulous approach has the effect of bringing Bartók closer to our own time. Should that repositioning not put you off, the package is eminently recommendable, attractively designed and comes with booklet notes by Paul Griffiths.