BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra. Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta • Marin Alsop, cond; Baltimore SO • NAXOS 8572486 (67:27)
Strictly speaking, the release at hand is brand-new but the recordings it contains aren’t; they date back to 2009 for the Concerto and 2010 for the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Naxos’s lag time between studio or concert hall and finished market product often tends to be a bit longer thanRead more that for other labels, more than likely due to the sheer volume of recordings the company produces. Ordinarily, such things wouldn’t matter, but in repertoire as popular as this, delay in a release’s arrival can risk a noteworthy recording being trumped by a more recent version. This time, it appears that Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Naxos lucked out, as I don’t find any more recent entries for these works. And that’s a very good thing, for it would be a shame if performances as outstanding as these had to be compared to even newer arrivals.
Comparisons will inevitably be made to some iconic classics, like Reiner’s some-would-say definitive 1955 Chicago recording of the Concerto for RCA, which still sounds freshly minted in my original stereo LP copy (LSC-1934), or Ozawa’s creepy, crawly 1992 Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon.
I have an admission to make here: Of all Bartók’s works, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is my absolute favorite. My first recording of the piece was a stereo LP that came out on Angel (35949) here in the U.S. in the early 1960s. It was coupled with Hindemith’s symphonic fragments from Mathis der Maler. Both works were led by Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
The reason I became so enamored of the piece is that we were given an assignment in my music analysis class to diagram the structure of the first movement. It turns out that it’s a slowly evolving fugue that begins on A, expands and contracts like a giant rubber band, or crescendo and decrescendo, inverting itself as it retreats, and ends on A where it began. Then, of course, there’s that amazing Adagio with its bug-eyed arthropods crawling out from under the rocks, their feelers twitching. What innovative sounds Bartók summons from his orchestra of xylophone, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, timpani, tam-tam, celesta, harp, and piano, and antiphonally divided strings placed on opposite sides of the stage. Few pieces fascinated me as much for their novelty of sound, while simultaneously making me want to douse myself with insect repellent and take refuge under mosquito netting.
If the ability of a performance to raise the hair on your arms and the nape of your neck is one measure of its success, Alsop’s with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra succeeds brilliantly. But the rhythmic precision and motor drive achieved in the work’s two Allegro movements are also thrilling. This is a great Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, no doubt about it.
Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky and premiered by him leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1944, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra has emerged as the composer’s single most popular work, eclipsing the earlier (1936) Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, which makes the competition for Alsop and the Baltimore orchestra that much stiffer.
The Concerto poses two challenges, one to the orchestra, the other to the conductor. The orchestra’s challenge is executional. This is a very difficult score to play, especially for the winds and brass, whose parts are tricky not just in themselves but in the way they have to fit together with the strings and a percussion section that’s almost as diverse as that in the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. The conductor’s challenge is to resist tampering. In the hands of first-rate players, as those in the Baltimore Symphony surely are, the Concerto wants to play itself with as little conductorial interference as possible. Bartók was meticulous in his notation and explicit in his directions.
One of the miracles of Reiner’s near-legendary account is that he doesn’t meddle. As a result, the music has the cool sparkle of a diamond. Even though the piece is certainly not devoid of emotional content, there’s a certain neoclassical, constructivist aloofness to it, which Reiner and his Chicagoans captured possibly better than any conductor and orchestra have since.
Two of Alsop’s movements, the second and finale, are a bit slower than Reiner’s by about 30 seconds each, but interestingly, her first, third, and fourth movements are in each case one second faster than Reiner’s. Overall, Alsop’s performance times out at 37:57 compared to Reiner’s 37:18. Alsop is also a bit warmer, which may be as much a function of the Meyerhoff Hall’s acoustics or Naxos’s recording as it is of her reading.
If you don’t have Reiner’s recording, it has now been remastered in SACD, coupled with the conductor’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and it can be purchased from Amazon at the amazing bargain price of $9.99. You owe it to yourself to acquire it, as it’s one of the great recordings of all time. If you do already have it in one form or another, and you’d like a more recent recording to keep it company, Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra make a wonderful shelf mate, which I promise won’t just sit there and gather dust.
A fine, fine effort, and strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Here’s a way to tell if a performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is likely to be an outstanding one right from the start. Listen to the sound clip below: the trumpet trio from the first movement’s introduction. Is the volume a true pianissimo? Are the players perfectly together? Is the articulation truly legato, the timbre devoid of breathiness, the tempo chosen so as to permit a real melody to emerge in just two big arcs? Do the strings accompany with crystalline calm so that the ensuing, passionate string eruption comes as a genuine shock? If all of these criteria are met, as they are here, then we’re probably in good shape for the five movements to come. Marin Alsop leads a splendid performance of this oft-recorded work, full of character, whether in the jocular “games of pairs” second movement, the ensuing spooky elegy, or the finale that begins (seemingly) a touch reserved but takes off like a shot in the coda. It’s a memorable and wholly successful effort, excellently engineered to boot.
The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is cut very much from the same cloth. This is one of the very few performances since Reiner’s (Solti’s LSO recording is another) that even makes an attempt to approach Bartók’s very quick indicated timings—and he specifies the length of each section down to the second (not that he really expected anyone would pay attention). This approach pays the biggest dividends in the opening fugue, which really does unfold almost visually, like an arch. It’s quite wonderful. The only drawback to this performance stems from the fact that the Baltimore strings just aren’t quite in the same league as the very greatest ensembles—say Berlin, or Leningrad under Mravinsky (but then they don’t get lost), or the best crack chamber orchestras. If only they could have dug in a little harder in the second movement, or in those scary tremolos at the climax of the nocturnal third movement, we’d have had a recording for the ages. As it is then, this is very, very good, and wholly recommendable as a pairing of these two iconic works.
First RateJuly 14, 2012By Robert C. (Tucson, AZ)See All My Reviews"This music has been important to me for over fifty years. I find these performances very enjoyable, effective, idiomatic. Better than Reiner? A worthy equal. I enjoyed performances more than, say, Boulez."Report Abuse
I missed in this recording the expressive sharpneJuly 10, 2012By Co Westerik (Saint Martin de Vers, France)See All My Reviews"It was a little too nice for Bartok, still not unpleasant to listen to."Report Abuse