Bartók Orchestral Works

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Bartók Orchestral Works

  • Concerto for Orchestra
  • Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
  • (The) Miraculous Mandarin
  • Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

A crucial shortcoming with most recorded performances of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta concerns tempo: in all cases sampled, even the swiftest options (Reiner, Fricsay and Solti’s Chicago recording) exceed Bartok’s prescribed total timing by at least two minutes. Now if that seems like a trifling issue, try Fricsay’s opening Andante tranquillo which, at 6'57'' is so much more fluid than either Boulez (a lugubrious 7'55'') or Dorati (similarly funereal at 8'03''). Bartok’s suggested timing is 6'30'', and yet so many conductors treat the movement as a sort of mirror-image of the Adagio of Beethoven’s Op. 131. Likewise in the second movement, where Bartok writes Scherzando over certain string lines (at bar 32, or 0'29'' on the new DG recording), excessive tension inhibits any sense of fun. Although Boulez achieves some colourful textures, his performance quite fails to catch fire, certainly in comparison with its most energetic Chicago predecessor, under Fritz Reiner. Pizzicato strings are untidy, which is where Dorati scores in his otherwise wayward 1960 LSO recording; but if quiet playing is a key requirement, then DG tip the scales in Boulez’s favour with some of the softest string sonorities on disc. Comparing these three versions is both frustrating and instructive: Boulez offers a clear-headed but ultimately sedate reading, nicely observed (except that the strumming pizzicatos that open the fourth movement don’t crescendo as marked) and beautifully recorded. Dorati’s recording stints on pianissimos and his finale is too slow by two minutes, although his interpretative concept – sectionalizing and emphasizing each episode as if it were part of a suite of dances – is certainly interesting. Both conductors have made other recordings of the piece, none of which alters the current balance of recommendations.
Ferenc Fricsay, that most fastidious of Bartokians, compensates for single-channel sound with great attention to detail, crisp articulation and a genuine sense of play (so important in the second movement) that is missing not only from the two alternatives under review, but from virtually every other version in the catalogue. His and Reiner’s are the recordings I would most strongly recommend, with Mravinsky’s thrilling 1967 Czech broadcast as a third option and Solti’s Chicago version as a digital first choice.
As to the present batch, couplings will of course prove crucial. Boulez treats us to a new recording of the Miraculous Mandarin ballet, marginally broader than his 1971 version with the New York Philharmonic – less dramatic too, but rather more subtle. One passage worth comparing – the Mandarin climbing the stairs to the girl’s chamber (fig. 34, 1'06'' into track 4) – is a seedy pentatonic tune shared between piano trombones and muted horns which, in New York, are raucous, closely balanced and too loud. Here, however, they really do play quietly, although elsewhere I sensed a certain dip in tension, especially at the opening Allegro and the forte violas (eight bars after fig. 6 – 1'23'' into track 1). Internal textures are invariably clear and the chase sports both a prominent tam-tam and a mighty crescendo (from, say, 1'24'' on track 6). The ‘post-chase’ episodes – those omitted from the concert suite – are vividly played and again (as in New York) Boulez holds the first note of the Mandarin’s death-rattle before letting him slip away. Most written dynamics are respected, though why the unmarked bass-drum crescendo a few bars after fig. 17 – 1'32'' into track 2? And again, as so often in recordings of this work, important ff second and third trumpets at fig. 21 (3'32'' into track 2) are curiously underprojected. Still, minor reservations notwithstanding, I would place this new performance fairly high on my list of available recommendations (surpassed only by Abbado and Rattle), although readers who already own its less well recorded New York predecessor are advised to sample first: they may find the newer version too low in adrenalin.
Dorati’s coupling is an extraordinarily fine account of the complete Wooden Prince ballet, one where the folk element is very strongly underlined (try 1'55'' into the First Dance on track 2). The rustlings and rumblings in “The Dance of the Trees” virtually leap from the speakers (track 3 – note too the strings’ passionate attack at 1'31'') and there’s an abundance of wit and dramatic incident throughout. The sound, although occasionally somewhat opaque, relates such detail as col legno strings (9'22'' into track 4) with typical ‘living presence’ and I would not hesitate to place this superb interpretation alongside the more refined Boulez recording, even beyond it, save that some will prefer a superior digital recording (Boulez definitely scores on that count).
As to Fricsay, few will quibble with the musical quality of his Concerto for Orchestra, a buoyant, thoughtfully balanced account, consistently attentive to detail and beautifully phrased (note the lyrical shaping of the violin melodies at 3'46'' into the opening movement and 2'28'' into the finale). The whole reading is distinguished by its vivacity, humanity and stylishness. Mono or not, I would urge you to hear it.
Confusing? I hope not. Of the three discs under review, Fricsay begs consideration for the sake of his sensitive musicianship, but his recording is in mono; Dorati’s Wooden Prince is remarkably fine, but his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is not really competitive; and Boulez’s coupling is beautifully recorded, intelligently conducted but, in the main, comparatively sober. And that’s about the measure of it.'

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