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Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz116 (1943)  
(Introduzione [10:56]; Giuoco delle coppie [6:48]; Elegia [7:57]; Intermezzo interrotto [4:08]; Finale [9:57])
Four Orchestral Pieces, Op. 12 (1912, orchestrated 1921)
(Preludio [8:55]; Scherzo [5:57]; Intermezzo [4:47]; Marcia funčbre [5:22])
Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz100 (1933)
(Ballad (Theme with Variations) [2:59]; Hungarian Peasant Dances [6:39])
Concerto for Orchestra (original ending) [0:57]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Leo Botstein
rec. 21-23 February 2000, Walthamstow Town Hall, London
TELARC CLASSICS CD80564 [76:22] 

Track samples available

If you are looking for a good, idiomatic performance of the Concerto, this is not it.

For a long time Fritz Reiner’s classic Chicago performance of the Bartók Concerto (reissued as a Living Presence SACD 828766139) has held sway – and rightly so. More recently Pierre Boulez made an excellent recording with the same forces, coupling the Concerto and Op. 12 pieces (DG 437 8262). Given these illustrious precedents the Botstein/LPO performances need to be very special indeed.
The combination of Telarc and the LPO in a proven acoustic (Walthamstow Town Hall) promises much but ultimately it’s up to the conductor to deliver. The only other Botstein disc I’ve heard is the Gličre Il’ya Murometz (Telarc CD80609). This didn’t strike me as particularly memorable, but that may have more to do with Gličre than Botstein.
The opening bars of the Introduzione, atmospherically recorded as they are, don’t augur well, sounding curiously lacklustre - that tune at 2:10 always reminds me of Duke Bluebeard. The climax that follows is not nearly as incisive as it can be and Botstein doesn’t find as much colour in the writing as others - Boulez especially. But perhaps the most grievous failing is the orchestra’s general lack of thrust and bite. Even that rhythmic passage that begins at 8:56 sounds hopelessly leaden.
The second movement, translated as ‘Presentation of the pairs’, is in five sections with different pairs of instruments playing together in each. It doesn’t start well, with some decidedly low-key side-drum taps. The pizzicato strings are lithe enough and the brass playing is polished but infuriatingly this music just refuses to leap off the page. Even worse the folk-like rhythms lack point or spring. This is not supermarket music, and it deserves much, much better than it gets here.
So what of the ‘night music’ of the Elegia? The harp swirls sound suitably spectral but in truth there isn’t much to be afraid of here. The orchestral eruption at 2:00 is certainly mighty but completely devoid of menace. Telarc’s recording seems less potent than usual, too. That said there is some welcome bite and tingle in the percussion but this doesn’t even begin to ameliorate what is a most peculiar reading of this great work.
Bartók’s quotation of the banal march theme from Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony in the fourth movement is an extended raspberry that, for some reason, doesn’t sound as grotesque or derisive as usual. Perhaps that’s the real problem here, that the playing is just too polite and well mannered for this work.
The finale begins rather more successfully, with better articulation in the fugato passages and more bounce to the rhythms. The new-found animation hints at what might have been, with some exhilarating playing and a real sense of character and personality. The ‘grand gesture’ at the close has an alternative that is included here (track 12). The latter is much more ambiguous than the conventional ending and suits this highly ambivalent work rather well.
Bartók’s Four Orchestral Pieces were first published by Universal Edition as an expensive lithographed full score in 1923 and it was only when Boosey & Hawkes printed it in the 1980s that this enchanting music became more widely known. The ripple of harps in the Preludio suggests a world far removed from the angst and bitterness of the Concerto. Indeed, there is something of the fluidity and lyricism that permeates Bluebeard and Botstein draws some lovely playing from all sections of the LPO. Even the recording seems to blossom more naturally in the tuttis, with less of that ‘wall of sound’ effect. It’s also a real pleasure to hear the orchestra more engaged with the music and playing with their usual warmth and enthusiasm.
The wild Scherzo has much more in common with Miraculous Mandarin, with its thumping bass and sense of barely controlled hysteria. The brass really bay and snarl, the woodwind play with obvious relish and that fabulous Telarc bass drum comes across very well at the end. This is music-making of another order entirely; it’s such a pity it comes so late in the day.
Bartók is more lyrical in the Intermezzo, the quieter moments full of atmosphere and subtle instrumental shading. By contrast the funeral march is altogether more vehement, scarifying even, and the crushing weight of the orchestra is very well caught by the engineers. And that ghostly snatch of a Mahlerian funeral procession at 5:00 is neatly done.
There is nothing gaunt or haunted about the Peasant Songs, which show Bartók at his folk-like best. This music may have been written as ’for money’ as the composer admitted in a letter to his mother but they are attractive, tuneful pieces that surely deserve to be heard more often. In the Hungarian Peasant Dance the LPO winds are wonderfully alive to the music’s rhythms and Botstein ensures a welcome degree of buoyancy and momentum throughout.
If you are looking for a good, idiomatic performance of the Concerto this is not it – try Reiner or Boulez instead. That said Botstein makes amends with the attractive fillers, which are very well played indeed. On the strength of these, and especially at mid-price, this disc is well worth a spin.
Dan Morgan 


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