> Bartok, Lutoslawski/Davis 0927406192 [CT]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra Sz116
Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Concerto for Orchestra

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
Recorded at Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden, February and March 1996 DDD
APEX 0927 40619 2 [66:27]


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On initially listening to this disc I was struck by two somewhat opposite observations. On the positive side this is a logical, fascinating and convenient coupling. Late Bartók and early Lutoslawski (the works are separated by a mere ten years or so) approaching the orchestral concerto form in very different ways yet not without clear harmonic, melodic and rhythmic parallels. As a result I found myself frequently flitting between the two works with my remote control.

On the negative side however both works face exceptionally tough competition elsewhere and ultimately this disc stubbornly refused to engage me in the music the way I would have liked. In the case of the Lutoslawski, the composer’s own recording with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra is available on an EMI mid-price reissue (7243 5 65305 2) or double forte CD set and has long been a definitive warhorse in my own collection. True, the playing is somewhat rough and ready at times but the inner energy and sheer power that the composer generates from the orchestra more than makes up for it. Andrew Davis gives a performance that is in many ways more rounded and is certainly not without its moments. Try the breathtaking passage following the huge first movement climax, at around 3’35" where Davis draws the horns through the texture to tremendously impressive effect. The recordings too are at opposite ends of the scale. Where the opening string motif in the composer’s own recording hits you between the eyes, Davis’s section sounds as if it is lost in the corridor outside the hall. For anyone with an inclination to fully explore Lutoslawski’s music the EMI disc is also a fine introduction to the composer, coupling the later Jeux vénitiens, Livre pour Orchestre and Mi-parti, all masterpieces of their time. Overall, the composer’s own recording may be a little "in your face" for some but I love it for its raw energy and as such it will remain my first choice.

If the Lutoslawski faces tough competition, the Bartók has an even greater mountain to climb. In terms of modern recordings there have been several in recent years of the finest pedigree. Perhaps at the forefront in many people’s minds will be the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer on Philips. As you would expect Fischer’s is a performance brimming over with Hungarian character, but it is also seat of the pants stuff for sheer excitement. That said my own personal first choice remains Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on EMI. A live performance recorded at Symphony Hall, the playing of the CBSO is faultless throughout. In the opening of the Elegia Rattle creates an immediate tangible atmosphere, his beautifully lucid woodwind weaving their mysterious lines with great delicacy, whereas Davis and his Swedish forces are bland in comparison. The bassoon duet that opens the Giuoco delle coppie again lacks shape and refinement with Davis, whilst Rattle’s finely felt sense of phrasing immediately engages the listener. The breathless energy and drive of the Finale is just so much more dynamic in both Rattle’s and Fischer’s recordings and although both are of course at full price, I would recommend that anyone in the market for a first rate modern recording of the Bartók invest the extra in either of these discs.

Although, by virtue of its coupling, this super-budget disc may be useful to anyone in the process of putting together a basic, cost effective collection of twentieth century classics, I would find it difficult to recommend it on any other grounds.

Christopher Thomas

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