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CD: Buywell

Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
CD 1
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116 [36:51]
Dance Suite, Sz. 77 [17:51]
Two Portraits, Sz. 37 [12:34]
Romanian Folk Dances for Orchestra, Sz. 68 [5:45]
CD 2
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106 [28:40]
Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz. 119 [23:23]
Julius Katchen (piano)
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, 1954 (3), 1957 (Concerto), 1959 (Music), 1964. ADD. mono
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9989 [73:28 + 52:13]
Experience Classicsonline

Ernest Ansermet is not a name that one naturally associates with the music of Bartók, but this CD, his complete Bartók recordings for Decca leaves an estimable legacy. The collection includes the first CD release of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and, while it doesn’t make me shed tears for the Bartók recordings Ansermet never made, it’s nevertheless a very worthwhile release.

Ansermet appears most at home in the dark, slow episodes of Bartók, such as the opening of the Concerto for Orchestra which seems to emerge from the undergrowth and slowly uncoil. The sinuous opening of the third movement does the same and both passages are very effective, though I wasn’t as convinced by the faster, fuller sections. The climaxes of the first and last movements appear to come out of nowhere as if they had barely been prepared, and to my ears they are abrupt and terse rather than a summing-up. Likewise, the searching, troubled opening of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is really effective and lives in the memory much more vividly than the louder moments, particularly the finale which is rather too calculating.

That said, Ansermet gives every appearance of enjoying himself in the dance works. He revels in the jaunty fast movements of the Dance Suite, especially the jaunty rhythms and crazy melodies of the first and third movements. The Romanian folk dances really sparkle too: most of them are less than a minute long, but each is packed full of character.

The Two Portraits were new to me: the first (Ideal) is an extended meditation with a solo violin which builds to a radiant climax, while the second (Distorted) is jaunty and brief but virtuosic in its own way. The best thing on the set is the third piano concerto, though. There is a great sense of ebb and flow between Katchen and the orchestra, the product, one suspects, of an extended rehearsal period. The first movement is lyrical and playful and the slow movement is suggestive and questioning, while the finale revels in its ebullience without ever being showy for its own sake. Katchen never seeks to draw attention to himself and the 1954 (mono) sound comes up surprisingly clearly. Only here did I wish that this combination of musicians had collaborated elsewhere in Bartók.

This is a disc that is more for fans of Ansermet than Bartók: these works have been recorded elsewhere in interpretations that are frankly better, but no-one can deny that Ansermet’s interpretations are distinctive and unique and at this super budget price anyone can afford to experiment. Bartók fans can expect to be surprised, Ansermet fans can expect to be pleased.

Simon Thompson


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