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Brilliant Classics

Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Music for strings, percussion and celesta [31.55]
Divertimento for String Orchestra [25.15]
The Wooden Prince - suite [26.28]
Two Portraits [13.07]
Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. Posth. [22.26]
Violin Concerto No. 2 [40.01]
Romanian Folk Dances [7.02]
Dance Suite [18.14]
Hungarian Pictures [12.53]
Two Pictures [19.18]
Romanian Dance [6.32]
Concerto for Orchestra (1945) [31.47]
The Miraculous Mandarin suite (1919) [21.32]
Gerhart Hetzel (violin)
Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra/Adam Fischer
rec. 12 Sept 1989 - 5 Oct 1992, Haydnsaal, Eisenstadt, Austria. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 6488 [57.10+39.25+62.39+64.33+63.41]


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.

These Bartók 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 flaws.

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.

Fischer’s Music 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 (CD1 tr.7).

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 Seejungfrau).

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.

The Hungarian 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.

The Miraculous 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 ... just!

Balancing coverage 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.

Rob Barnett

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