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Harold Moores Records

Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz116 (1943) [37’17]. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) [27’50]. Hungarian Sketches, Sz97 (1931) [10’44].
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner.
Rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, 22 Oct 1955 (Concerto) and 28-29 Dec 1958. ADD
RCA RED SEAL LIVING STEREO 82876 61390 2 [76’07]

A marvellous reminder of the virtuosity of the Chicagoans under Fritz Reiner. This disc consists of two full LPs, offering superb value for money (with a playing time of over 76 minutes) as well as carefully-chosen repertoire (the ‘filler’ of Hungarian Sketches is pure delight).

Firstly, the Concerto for Orchestra. Fritz Reiner was a personal friend and confidant of the composer, so this reading carries a special authority. Not only this, Reiner’s orchestra is intensively drilled – rarely will you hear a performance so well-prepared as this. The very opening is tremendously hushed (and what clarity thanks to the SACD format!). Reiner’s understanding of Bartók’s emotional vocabulary is outstanding, as is his control of his orchestra (the accelerando is surely without parallel), all this held within a beautifully warm recorded sound.

The second movement (the famous ‘Giuoco delle coppie’) is full of charm, but is also rhythmically totally on-the-ball. Fellow Hungarian Solti in his Chicago recording also found real affinity with this movement (now available on Double Decca 470 516-2), but it is Reiner who is more human. Reiner’s ‘Elegia’ is carefully sculpted, working to an excruciating (in the best sense of the word) climax. Similarly Reiner does not play down the more vulgar elements of the ‘Intermezzo interotto’ (the Shostakovich quote is blatant).

If there is any excerpt from this disc that proves the technical excellence of the Chicagoans, it is the swirling opening of the finale. Trumpets cut through the texture impressively. If there are more jubilant accounts of this finale, the interpretation is entirely in keeping with Reiner’s overall vision, with the final emergence of blazing trumpets seeming all the more victorious. It would be worth the outlay for this performance alone.

That said, there are two other claims to the record collector’s purse here. The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, perhaps surprisingly, triumphs because of Reiner’s affinity with the more interior moments. Thus the first movement (andante tranquillo) is a peaceful unravelling where Reiner’s control of dynamics is all; the Adagio third movement gives off a miraculous stillness; some conductors get lost in the harmonic maze here. If the second movement allegro is not as punchy as, say, Karajan’s Berlin EMI performance, it still makes its effect and the spatial element works remarkably well.

Finally, the five Hungarian Sketches reveal, in the ‘Swineherd’s Dance’ at least, that Reiner could do unbuttoned as well. These are arrangements of piano pieces (Nos. 5 and 10 of Ten Easy Pieces, no. 2 of Four Dirges, no. 2 of Three Burlesques, and no. 40 of For Children, Book 1) that the composer made in an attempt to court popularity. The most memorable aspect of the present performances comes in the form of the outstanding solo clarinettist (in both the first and third movements). The Hungarian Sketches make for an interesting close to a disc that shows Reiner and his orchestra at the height of their powers, all presented in exemplary sound. Strongly recommended.


Colin Clarke


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