Bartók Orchestral Works

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Bartók Orchestral Works

  • Concerto for Orchestra
  • (4) Pieces
  • Concerto for Orchestra
  • Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
  • Hungarian Sketches

The four lavish canvases that make up Bartok's Pieces are virtually as much a 'concerto for orchestra' as the better-known masterpiece so named. The first is a steamy re-enactment of Bluebeard's shadowy castle, ripe to bursting-point with extravagant orchestration and magnificently conveyed here, although brass and high strings are occasionally a mite brittle. The Scherzo is a garish burlesque, all savagery and ritual masks, with seething brass trills, pounding ostinatos and startling contrasts in metre and dynamics (at 3'06'' we hear the unmistakable echo of Judith hammering on Bluebeard's Sixth Door). The third is a sort of extended valse triste, scant consolation perhaps after the Scherzo's violence, but prophetic of the Straussian Marcia funebre that ends the set.
Boulez unleashes these mammoth effusions without taming them: his orchestra confronts Bartok's searing climaxes head-on, and DG's engineers brook no compromise. Comparing this performance with Boulez's earlier New York version on Sony—another fine reading—reveals a 1'14'' speed increase in the ''Preludio'' (6'32'', as opposed to 7'46'' two decades earlier), though the other three pieces are now rather broader than they were. Also, the newer recording has clearer definition and a far wider dynamic range. Having emerged in the wake of Sz51's closing pages, the sombre opening of the Concerto for Orchestra sounds uncommonly menacing. Yet in the event, Boulez delivers a relatively conservative interpretation; it is a good, clear-headed reading, generally well played but not quite as involving as the conductor's New York version from 1972 (Sony, 11/87—nla). The first movement is nicely animated, although there's a fair amount of extraneous noise at around 8'30''—including what sounds like a distant car horn. The ''Pair Play'' second movement is pleasantly relaxed, the ''Elegia'' and ''Intermezzo Interrotto'' keenly characterized. But the finale occasionally seems faster than the Chicago violins can manage comfortably, although the closing moments burst upon us with immense impact, crowning a fairly positive contender in a very healthy field.
If you really want to test the mettle of Boulez's strongest rivals, then Reiner's CD is a good place to start. Both recordings were made in Chicago's Orchestra Hall: Boulez's at the end of 1992, Reiner's in October 1955 (not that spot-check sampling would reveal the age difference—quite the contrary). RCA's sound reportage of the score's quieter moments has uncanny realism and if the climaxes are occasionally reined in, the sheer fervour of Reiner's direction more than compensates. The ''Pair Play'' is a very brisk 6'26'', the finale taut and agile: compare the movement's opening in both versions and Reiner's greater precision and control is immediately apparent. The couplings, too, are excellent: a Music for strings, percussion and celesta that goes all out for smooth transitions and fleet execution, and a stylishly turned set of Hungarian Sketches—with a substantially augmented percussion line in ''Bear Dance''. These too sound better than ever, the Music for strings, percussion and celesta having lost a confusing layer of distortion that hampered some earlier LP editions.
So, after clear-thinking Boulez and hard-driving Reiner, Charles Dutoit has Bartok parade as a master colourist. This last option works particularly well in the second of the two Portraits—the 'Grotesque' distortion of the 'Ideal' that was so serenely etched in the First—and the Divertimento, with its constantly shifting perspectives between a full string band and a concertante quintet. In both works, Dutoit's rhythmic suppleness, wit and feeling for nuance pay substantial dividends, especially during the final few minutes of the Divertimento, where Bartok apes all manner of musical styles. But The Miraculous Mandarin is hectic and dizzy, a tonal salad tossed so that the brightest ingredients can rise to the top. It is almost like a caricature, the main protagonists set as comic figures: fast-moving, cartoon-like and oddly cavalier in their musical gestures. Even the more tender closing sequences seem glossed over, and there's one passage—3'17'' into track 2 (''First decoy game'')—where ff second and third trumpets are either absent or extremely shy. The engineers, however, have done a spectacularly good job in capturing the full range of Dutoit's kaleidoscopic interpretation. I might not like it, but it certainly does make an exciting noise!
As to recommendations: Reiner's Concerto and Music for strings, percussion and celesta is basic library fare, but if you need digital sound, then I'd be inclined to stick with Solti. Boulez's new Four Pieces strikes me as the first choice, although his first version is highly effective and its coupling, The Miraculous Mandarin, remains one of the best available.'

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