Notes and Editorial Reviews
Hungarian composer, pianist, musicologist Bela Bartok, though criminally neglected in his own time, has risen in stature and is now considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. His unique rhythmic style, infused with the folk melodies of the Hungarian countryside, and complex harmonies make his music instantly recognizable. Sir Simon Rattle has always been a proponent of new music, and his readings of such masterpieces as the Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta; The Miraculous Mandarin; and the Piano and Violin Concertos; and others on this 4-CD boxed set show a deep understanding of and involvement in this music.
Reviews of some of the recordings that make up this set:
Violin Concerto, Rhapsodies
It is rare indeed to encounter a concerto recording where the critical honours can be evenly distributed, but this Bartok Second Violin Concerto really does suggest a strong team spirit. Heard purely for its own sake, Kyung-Wha Chung's playing is sinewy, agile and occasionally a mite brittle: phrasing is always judicious, but tone production is generally less physically engaging than, say, Kyoko Takezawa's under Michael Tilson Thomas. Yet one soon realizes that every passage has been carefully thought through—the opening sequence, for example, which Chung traces as a continuous line of monologue. However, it is when soloist and conductor grapple in dialogue that the sparks really start to fly. Rattle and his players make the very most of Bartok's orchestral commentary: instrumental interplay is always alert, rhythms are keenly focused and his way of cushioning Chung, palpably convincing (try, by way of an example, the closing moments of the second movement—from, say, 9'20''). The first movement has immense dash, with dramatic tuttis and a wealth of detail busying behind and around the solo line. Time and again, I found myself jotting observations relating to dynamic shading, sensitive woodwind phrasing and the warmth of the CBSO strings (especially when playing piano—as in the opening minutes of the Andante tranquillo). The third movement hangs together well, its mirror imaging of the first convincingly presented. Rattle again displays a comprehensive understanding of Bartok's highly individual tonal palette: every component gleams and no significant detail is allowed to pass unnoticed.
The well-matched Rhapsody recordings (taped at Cheltenham Hall rather than City Hall, Birmingham) are, again, revealing. The solo line is nicely attenuated, and the overall approach one of fine-tuned improvisation. Detail is legion (note the way solo violin and woodwinds intertwine at the beginning of the Second Rhapsody's second movement) and Rattle compounds the rhapsodic idea by shaping his phrases with imaginatively applied rubato. In fact, I don't recall hearing any Hungarian performances that sound quite this idiomatic. So, it's a strong recommendation, with the sole proviso that Kyoko Takezawa has a rather more ingratiating tonal profile than Kyung-Wha Chung. However, Chung is certainly a more probing Bartokian than she was at the time of her 1977 recording of the piece, under Solti; and her poignantly expressed intelligence will doubtless prove a durable virtue.
-- Gramophone [6/1994]
Making Bartok's First Piano Concerto sound fun must have taken some doing, but Donohoe and Rattle have certainly managed it. I've never heard the outer movements chuckle with such impish excitement; even by 1'04'' into the first movement pianist and winds are busily embroiled in breathless banter, and when, at 5'16'', the argument hots up and the pace accelerates, the whole proceedings take on the spirit of a fairground helter-skelter. What's particularly engaging about this performance is its joyful belligerence, a quality that must have sat at the very centre of Bartok's prompting inspiration. But in praising Donohoe's digital dexterity and Rattle's textual vigilance, I must also mention Andrew Keener: his production not only reveals more of the music than any rival version, but it actually locates details that we wouldn't hope to hear in concert. Rather than have the piano pounding in the foreground, Keener blends the instrument in among the orchestra, so that Rattle's sensitivity to nuance, Donohoe's lightness of touch and the accommodating acoustic of Birmingham's Symphony Hall transform what we frequently hear as an angular confrontation into something genuinely palatable. Judicious balancing is equally supportive of the Andante, especially from 3'01'', where a Bluebeard-style clarinet instigates a wonderful climactic arch, with Donohoe trudging dense chords and the winds wailing high above him. The Second Concerto alone was taped at Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre—a less helpful acoustic, especially for a work that has such a relentlessly busy first movement. So much happens at breakneck speed that the chances of tapping in every detail 'dead on target' are extremely remote. Yet this impressively urgent account could hold its own in any company, even though there are one or two passages where articulation momentarily falters. The rest is either pungent or evocative: the second movement's 'night music' Adagio sections are beautifully sustained and the finale has terrific elan.
For the Third Concerto, it's back to Symphony Hall and comparatively luminous textures. Rattle affects an attractive diminuendo across the opening bars, signalling any number of subtle variations in pulse and dynamics, all of them calculated to support the music's tender complexion. Listen to the way he nudges the upwardly-rising pizzicato strings at the close of the first movement (from 6'38'') and the evenness of held wind chords in the Adagio religioso—a reading that journeys from simple affirmation to pain, and back again. As in the Second Concerto, the invisible world of insect nightlife teems through the movement's centre, animating its surface and providing Donohoe, Rattle and the CBSO with an expansive colouring book. Only the finale struck me as a little earthbound (compare Kocsis and Fischer), but then anything more aggressive would probably have contradicted the lyrical bias of what went before.
Taken overall, this is a marvellous trio of performances and serves as a fresh reminder of just how great these works are. Its only serious rival would be a single CD of the vintage Geza Anda/Ferenc Fricsay recordings, a sure-fire potential contender for DG's Twentieth Century Classics series.
-- Gramophone [11/1993]