Notes and Editorial Reviews
A highly satisfactory overview of, and introduction to, one of the 20th century’s most significant composers.
A veritable feast of Bartók, this very well-filled double-disc set serves a number of laudable functions. As an introduction to this fascinating composer’s music it pulls no punches, throwing in many ‘difficult’ movements from a variety of pieces as well as the kind of movements which are the recognised ‘soft centres’, such as the
Adagio religioso from the
Piano Concerto No.3. Even in such moments, Bartók’s music always has a slightly edgy, dangerous quality, which you feel could take it in almost any direction. Naxos has done well to include complete movements for the most part,
the only real ‘bleeding chunk’ being a brief but dramatic excerpt from
The Miraculous Mandarin.
A central aspect of this issue is its educational value. Accompanied by an 80 page booklet, recognised music writer Stephen Johnson has but together an approachable but substantial essay on Bartók’s life and works. He shows the relationship of Bartók’s techniques up to the present, even including Frank Zappa among those touched by his interpretation of folk music and advances in rhythm and polyrhythm. After outlining the important events in Bartók’s life, Johnson explores the works which appear on the CDs in some detail, covering rhythmic patterns, orchestration, movement structure, proportion, symmetry, associations, influences and the like. His notes are often less technical than descriptive in parts, but with useful reference to tracks and the timings of the moments in question, the lay reader as much as the inquisitive professional can learn a great deal from sitting next to the CD player, synchronising the well-informed reading experience with the aural.
All of the tracks on this collection have been sourced from Naxos’s now extensive catalogue and stable of musicians, so on the level of a sampler one can gain impressions of releases such as the Vermeer Quartet’s not unimpressive complete set of Bartók’s String Quartets and Marin Alsop’s fairly recent, rich’n juicy recordings with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Jenö Jandó appears as soloist in the concerti, as well as in extracts from his 2005 recordings of the complete
Mikrokosmos. I’ve always tended to think of Jandó as more of a workmanlike pianist than a genuinely inspirational one, but he and the Naxos label have been faithful to each other from the start: before the booklet designers had even found a font which could cope with the accents in his name, which were written in by hand! His reliable performances serve never less than adequately here. I’m not so keen on the foursquare approach he takes to some of the early
Mikrokosmos, having always been taught to squeeze as much musicality out of them as possible, but his
Allegro barbaro does have some nice witty
rubati in the central section, he is a sensitive accompanist with György Pauk in the
Rhapsody No.1 and makes a capable fist of the
Concertos. Pauk also serves as solo violinist in the concerto movements for that instrument, and is an expressive advocate for the music. The only track where I turned up my nose was the first on disc 2, the movement from
Contrasts, which, admittedly a notorious difficult combination, is low on intonational accuracy in a few parts, and has one of the musicians singing along audibly towards the end – I suspect Jandó, although the right-channel position of the offender is confusing if it is.
There are inevitably one or two blind spots. No fragment from
Bluebeard’s Castle is possibly the greatest omission, although its lack of a place in the Naxos catalogue probably provides the answer to this. All things considered this is a highly satisfactory overview of and introduction to one of the 20
th century’s most significant composers, not to be missed by students, and a legitimate and useful way of approaching ‘This Modern Stuff’ for the uninitiated.
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
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