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Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra (1944) [37’57”]
Concerto for Two Pianos, and Percussion
(1942) [25’33”]
Roumanian Folkdances (1917) [6’34”]
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. Kulttuuritalo Hall of Culture, Helsinki, 9-15 September 2004 DDD

WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61947-2 [70.04]


As far as I can tell, this is Sakari Oramo’s first recording with his new Helsinki Orchestra on Warner Classics; an earlier disc of Uuno Klami was released by these forces on Ondine. The only problem I can find is that there are already some fifty odd competing readings in the catalogue. It makes me wonder how Warner Classics thought that it could possibly be a success, given the competition from such Bartók experts as Reiner, Ivan Fischer, Ančerl and the like. However, this disc has one thing going for it very strongly, and that is the coupling. As far as I can tell there is no other recording which couples the Concerto for Orchestra with the Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion.

In the latter work, there is far less competition; only four in number. So if this combination appeals to you, this may factor clinch some sales. This would not be likely if the performances were flawed, but I am happy to say that this is definitely not the case. In common with a number of other European Orchestras, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra has gradually been improving in quality until upon this evidence they can be very proud of this superb recording.

Oramo builds on the reputation he has achieved in Birmingham. I have high hopes for other recordings from this source. The Warner recording quality is of very good broadcast standard, and there are no problems in this area.

Bartók produced the Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion by starting with the score of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion which he had written in 1937. When he arrived in America he formed a piano duo with his wife, Ditta, and they spent time giving concerts to help swell their funds. He decided to write a concerto for both of them, and used his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion as the basis for the composition. He took the chamber score and added the orchestral parts but only in the lightest fashion.

The work was first performed in London in November 1942, and later the following January in New York with Fritz Reiner conducting the New York Philharmonic. At this concert Bartók apparently unnerved both his wife and Reiner, by improvising at the keyboard supporting a mistake made by one of the percussionists. This was to be Bartók’s last public appearance as a pianist; not long afterwards, he collapsed and was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. His friends rallied around him, and were able to raise funds to keep his medical bills at bay. Friends also persuaded Sergei Koussevitsky to commission a new orchestral work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bartók felt unable to fulfil the commission, but whilst convalescing he was inspired by the American start of the second World War, and set to work on the Concerto for Orchestra.

This received its first performance in 1944 from the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Sergei Koussevitsky. Such was its success that it notched up a further five performances in Boston and New York alone. It has enjoyed similar popularity ever since and is still played regularly in concert halls throughout the world. Its attraction is no doubt due to the fact that Bartók was able to incorporate Hungarian and other folksongs throughout the score. It is generally recognised as one of the most accessible of Bartók’s scores.

The only criticism of these performances is that of a very slight feeling of everyone being on autopilot; not something you could possibly apply to the other performances mentioned earlier.

However this is very slight, and if you want this particularly rare coupling, then you may purchase without any hesitation.

The brief, very well played Roumanian Dances enhance the disc, but do not materially affect the overall effect.

John Phillips



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