Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra BB123 (1943) [37:57]
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta BB114 (1936) [29:29]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Meyerhoff Hall, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, 2-4 October 2009 (BB123); 3-4, 6 June 2010 (BB114)
NAXOS 8.572486 [67:27]
To anyone who is only used to the concept of a concerto as referring to a piece for solo instruments accompanied by an orchestra the idea of a ‘concerto for orchestra’ may seem an oddity in the same way that Alkan’s concerto for solo piano must. Commissioned by the Koussevitsky Music Foundation in 1943, in memory of Sergei Koussevitsky’s wife, Natalie, the work explores and celebrates the abilities of various sections of the orchestra. To most of us who don’t have sufficient musical knowledge to appreciate the technical aspect of such a composition it is simply an orchestral work, and for me that’s quite enough and as such I love it. I’ve said before that at one time the very name of Bartók would have caused me to believe I wouldn’t like the music in the same way that some people believe that there are certain foodstuffs that they won’t like though they’ve never tried them. If there are any people who feel that way then the Concerto for Orchestra is without a doubt the best way to conquer that feeling. It is the most wonderfully musical piece with exciting melodies, especially the folk-inspired third movement in which Bartók exploits his unique facility with using folk tunes which he introduced into so many of his works. If there are people who also believe that he was not a composer that could ‘let his hair down’ then the fourth movement should dispel that idea with its witty parody of the most infamous section of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. It is a work of contrasts from its severe opening to the joyful nature of the final two movements that showcases his brilliant writing for all sections of the orchestra. It is a hugely exciting work that repays frequent listening as there are always new aspects to discover within it. This muscular and thrilling recording amply demonstrates why Marin Alsop is such a sought after conductor and why the Baltimore Symphony is so highly thought of all over the world.
Once again with Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta we have another example of Bartók as a mould breaker - surely not even Vivaldi who wrote music for just about every conceivable instrument could have come up with that combination - apart from the fact that the celesta was only patented in 1886. This work was also a commission, this time from Paul Sacher (1906-1999) the Swiss conductor, patron and impresario, who was responsible for commissioning so much music from the 1930s onwards from people like Stravinsky, Martinů, Honegger, Frank Martin, Hindemith, Richard Strauss right up to Hans Werner Henze and Harrison Birtwistle, and was at one time said to be the wealthiest man in Europe. What a wonderful way to use money that makes us all the richer. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a marvellously atmospheric work with a whole gallery of interesting instruments being marshalled with percussion comprising side drum, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum, timpani and xylophone with the celesta, harp and piano ranged in the middle of two sets of strings. Within the four movements of roughly equal lengths there is wonderful writing that fully exploits the individual characteristics of the various sections used and the whole work is a thrilling and exhilarating listen. Once again this orchestra throws itself wholeheartedly into the performance giving full vent to the possibilities the composition allows for. I can imagine that it is extremely taxing for everyone concerned, especially the conductor who must be quite exhausted by its close as there is no let-up from start to finish.
I thoroughly enjoyed these highly energetic performances and am eager to explore other recordings Marin Alsop has made with this fine orchestra, including her highly acclaimed Dvořák cycle.
Steve Arloff 
A thrilling and exhilarating listen. 

Masterwork Index: Concerto for orchestra