KODÁLY; BARTÓK Concertos for Orchestra (Hrůša)
Here’s a pairing rarely made on disc, yet they are natural partners: two Concertos for Orchestra by Hungarian composers, each composed for American orchestras within five years of each other. Béla Bartók was chronically ill when he received a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation. His cosmopolitan Concerto for Orchestra, premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1944, was a huge success, immediately taken into the repertoire. However, Zoltán Kodály’s was the earlier composition but is rarely heard. It was commissioned for the Chicago Symphony’s 50th anniversary and is more modest in scale – a single-movement work in five sections. The outbreak of the Second World War had prevented Kodály from travelling to Chicago; it was Bartók who took the score with him to the US as he headed into self-exile in 1940. The talented young Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša offers warm, affectionate performances with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Pentatone’s booklet note declares that Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra ‘cannot hold a candle to Bartók’s eponymous work’ but Hrůša does a fine job navigating the dialogue between solo groups and orchestra. Kodály treated the work almost as a concerto grosso, wanting to ‘dress the concerto up in a Baroque costume’. This performance is as loving and playful as Antal Dorati’s with his Philharmonia Hungarica on Decca and, although the acoustic is a little beefy, the Berlin strings display great warmth.
Bartók’s work gives the Berlin players a more rigorous workout and they offer a muscular reading. Hrůša allows plenty of time for the brooding introduction to unfold, although I miss the almost surgical incision of the LSO brass later in the opening movement. The ‘Game of Pairs’, where pairs of instruments thrust and parry in friendly duel, is a bit soft-focus here, neat and tidy, but lacking a touch of personality. The Elegia is atmospherically done, misty strings and nocturnal woodwinds beautifully balanced. Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra attack the finale with more vigour but Hrůša maintains scrupulous control over the Berlin strings’ perpetuum mobile.
At just 55 minutes this is an ungenerous pairing; but although there’s stronger competition when it comes to Bartók, this disc is worth hearing for its glowing account of the Kodály.