This is an extremely
useful collection of Bartók's
orchestral music. There are five CDs
and each is modestly filled. The cost
is well below bargain price so you can
still explore without major damage to
the bank balance.
In the UK the best
retail source has been the Superdrug
chain though availability can be patchy.
Rumours are that Superdrug may no longer
be carrying that line. Elsewhere it
is a mix of mail order, internet (Berkshire
are a good example) and, in the Benelux
countries, the Kruidvat chemist chain.
Some Brilliant Classics lines are only
to be had in Benelux - I think of the
Muti-conducted set of all seven Tchaikovsky
symphonies. This Bartók set is
generally available and so is its companion,
the Kodaly double.
recordings are familiar enough. They
have appeared, always at budget basement
price, on Nimbus and the German Arts
label; also, I think, on IMP. This is
not a sign that they are slipshod or
deficient. While playing time is short
on each disc the interpretative musical
values are high. That these recordings
'toil' away unregarded is rather due
to our myopic preoccupation with the
big names rather than any intrinsic
In fact Adam Fischer,
whose complete Haydn symphonies has
been one of the diamond joys of the
Nimbus and now the Brilliant Classics
catalogues, has conducted in all the
world's major concert cities. He founded
the Austro-Hungarian orchestra and appears
frequently at the festivals of Salzburg
and Bregenz in addition to being a well
regarded presence in Vienna and Berlin.
for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
is instinct with edgy, almost ruthless,
energy and the engineers have done him
and the orchestra proud. The second
movement (CD1 tr.2) is a demonstration
track with its vibrant pizzicato and
mosaically judged terracing of volume
and texture. Speaking of texture, listen
to the miraculously suave andante
tranquillo transformed by violin
and viola tone - smooth and wondering
(CD1 tr.1). This does not have quite
the candlepower of the famous Mravinsky
recording but it has a more humane yield.
The Divertimento lives
up to the same qualities with its successes
including the panache of the 'concerto
grosso' dialogue in the allegro assai
The Wooden Prince
is an early piece written during
the Great War when Hungary was falling
away from Austria - an old empire crumbling.
Fischer applies a world of hushed sensitivity
to the prelude which is without the
paprika we later expect as a Bartók
hallmark. It almost sounds like Nielsen.
The work is at times raucously celebratory
yet cut through with strata of sound
that are more in touch with late romantic
impressionism of Zemlinsky (e.g in Die
The Two Portraits
Op. 5 are drawn from different
sources. There is the soulful love-song
Die Ideale (a portrait of, or
song to, the violinist Steffi Geyer
- she did not succumb to the hopelessly
smitten Othmar Schoeck whose rapturous
Violin Concerto was also written for
her). The second portrait, Grotesque
is a wild hurly-burly fantasy picture
which relates to the explosions of the
Concerto for Orchestra and has
nothing of the early romanticism of
The Wooden Prince.
The seven miniatures
that comprise the Romanian Folk
Dances are suitably delicate,
bucolic ... and sparkling with feral
exuberance (eg. tr.7 CD4). There is
nothing avant-garde in this music and
when it comes to pastoral atmosphere
and the scent of the Orient the dance
called In One Spot is unmatched.
The long resonating note at the end
of the Romanian Dances draws
attention to the very lively acoustic
at the Haydnsaal. The Dance Suite
leaves innocence behind. The
suite was written in 1923 to celebrate
the merger of Buda and Pest and always
suggests to me that Bartók perceived
the continuing tensions between the
two sides of Danube. The suite seemed
to presage 'interesting times' rather
than a rapturous sunrise. At 3.49 the
hum and grunt might be Adam Fischer
or might be the virile attacking biplay
of strings and concert hall.
Pictures were prepared from
five of his early piano solos when Bartók’s
publisher asked for something lighter
than the third and fourth string quartets.
The singingly and rhythmically accessible
qualities of the Romanian Folk Dances
are replicated here. Take as an
example the delectable hiccup, sway
and stagger of the fourth movement.
The Two Pictures
(1910) were written while the
composer was much and densely influenced
by Debussy. The cobwebs are dispelled
or at least violently stirred by the
second Picture - entitled A Village
Dance. This stomps and skirls intriguingly.
There are shadows here of both the Bartók
we know from the later years but also
of a Bartók who never bloomed.
The Fourth CD closes with the isolated
Hungarian Dance which
one of my CD players had trouble tracking.
In the home strait
we find Bartók's great Concerto
for Orchestra as well as the
suite from The Miraculous Mandarin.
The Concerto was written two years
before his death. This too benefits
from the benison of a perfect balance
between orchestra, concert hall and
technical team. The coaxing ascents
from silence to pianissimo and every
other rising and descent are most excitingly
and satisfyingly captured. I detected
minor roughnesses especially from the
brass but overall this version is never
less than good even if from time to
time this reading does not fly as lightly
as it might both as recording and interpretation.
The perkily attentive playing of the
woodwind is a joy to hear. There is
one regrettable ‘burp-blip’ in the start
(00.14 ) of tr. 5 of CD5 but this comes
and goes in an instant.
Mandarin is a more thunderously
dissenting work than the Concerto
for Orchestra even if it was written
more than twenty years previously. The
dissonant element is much stronger than
in any of the other pieces. Unfortunately
the Mandarin suite is allocated
a single 21.32 track rather than being
sub-divided. The stentor tone of the
brass choir at 18.30 onwards is striking
and as violent as you would expect.
The two violin concertos
make a logical coupling and Gerhart
Petzel (whose name has not, as far as
I can tell, appeared at all since these
recordings were made in 1991) is well
up to the task. His tense and febrile
tone is much in demand throughout the
first concerto's two movements. This
work must have had a very personal status
because neither the composer nor the
dedicatee Geyer ever mentioned the work.
It did not become known until after
Geyer's death in 1958. It is a work
of romantic lyricisim - not so much
Bruch or Mendelssohn but certainly in
the broad road that also carries Delius,
Szymanowski (the Bartók is not
quite so much of a hothouse plant as
the Pole), Karlowicz and Prokofiev.
Hetzl is given close microphone attention
and the hypercritical might have preferred
a lusher tone for the First Concerto.
As it is, the suggestion of wiriness
and close-up intimacy works very well
in the more knowingly mature Second
Concerto. Once again, rather as in the
Music for Strings etc on CD1,
the unerring choices made by the engineering
and production team spell some breathtakingly
subtle and diaphanous sounds.
There are many big
names in this field and I confess to
not being a Bartók expert. However
the life and spell cast by this partnership
will take some trouncing ... certainly
at this price.
The notes are a single
compact fold of paper covering the essentials
of repertoire, price and quality there
is no better way to get to know the
orchestral Bartók. Even seasoned
collectors will want this set given
the inclusion of rare material in CD4
(the disc in which dance format pieces
predominate). This is not to say that
you cannot get better versions individually
but as a single convenient slim wallet
package this is currently matchless.