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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Kossuth - Symphonic Poem sz21 (1903) [21:37]
Concerto for Orchestra sz116 (1943) [37:52]
Rumanian Folk Dances (1917) [5:47]
ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien/Cornelius Meister
rec. Grosser Sendesaal, ORF Funkhaus, Vienna, Austria, 27-30 June 2011 (Concerto; Dances), 26-27 June 2012 (Kossuth)
CPO 777 784-2 [65:27]

Béla Bartók's Alpha and Omega is how the liner to this CPO disc deftly characterises the two main works presented here. It’s a neat and effective piece of CD programming - but not an original one. Therein lies the rub for this new recording: with performances ranging from perfectly competent to less than that it simply cannot compete with existing discs which in every case combine better interpretations of the main works as well as more interesting and valuable couplings.
The 'Alpha' is the proudly nationalistic tone poem Kossuth written when Bartók was twenty-two. The eponymous hero Lajos Kossuth led Hungary's struggle for independence from Austria leading to the failed revolution of 1848 and his subsequent exile. Remarkably he lived until 1894 - dying just nine years before Bartók's hagiographic composition. I like the description in the liner of a nationalist-zealot Bartók walking around in National dress exhorting his friends and family to throw off the chains of Austro-German culture and embrace all things Hungarian. That being the case I wonder why the irony that Bartók so clearly modelled his piece on the style and form and musical vocabulary of that arch-Germanic composer Richard Strauss never occurred to the composer.
The problem remains - fascinating for admirers of the composer though it is - that at this stage of his career Bartók was no Strauss and once one gets past the confident handling of a large late-Romantic orchestra there is little but bombast and fairly empty rhetoric. That being said it can sound like a better piece than the performance here would suggest. I should state that this is a SACD recording which I was able to listen to in 'standard' CD format only. There are different recording dates for this work and the rest of the disc and curiously the earlier sessions sound a lot better. This performance of Kossuth is afflicted by a curious malaise: the orchestral playing is perfectly reasonable without being exceptional and the recording is slightly distanced with occasional oddities in balance. The main problem is interpretative. Conductor Cornelius Meister does not seem to have the conviction or flair to make one believe the piece is better than the sum of its parts. So, for example in the cliché-ridden 'battle' sequence (track 8) it simply lumbers along with the interpolation of the Austrian National Anthem - as well as all the other standard musical-battle gestures - seeming simply noisy. Elsewhere the strings of the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien struggle to produce a weight of tone the music demands. All in all it’s a very lack-lustre affair.
The reason I can state this with such certainty became apparent the instant I listened to either of the two similarly coupled discs I have. One was originally on IMP PCD1013 with Tibor Ferenc conducting the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra released in the mid-1990s. The third work offered here is the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. This is by no means a subtle or refined disc in performance or recording terms but by golly it’s a thrillingly red-blooded affair. Then go to the other direct competitor: The Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer on Philips and further debate seems redundant. A far, far finer - and idiomatic - orchestra, more immediately and excitingly engineered, and interpretations that strike at the heart to the composer at either end of his career. Add a much more interesting 'filler' - the Three Village Scenes - to Meister's less-than-sparkling account of the minor Rumanian folkdances and the rout of the new disc is complete. Perversely, the Fischer recording seems to be available 'new' as a download only currently although second-hand copies can be found at a price. There is at least one other similar coupling - Blomstedt with the San Francisco SO on Decca which I have not heard.
With the Concerto for Orchestra competition gets even tougher. Just about every great conductor and orchestra have used this work as some kind of measure of their musical virility since its premiere in 1943. Meister's performance here is significantly better than the earlier work. Indeed, if this were the first and only performance one encountered of Bartók's late masterpiece one would be relatively content. Unfortunately, comparisons do prove that while the Viennese players are technically adept, they - and the interpretation again - lack the edge of individuality and character to lift this away from the efficiently routine. It proves to be a very middle of the road interpretation without the swagger and élan of the many classic versions. A famous touchstone performance has to be Fritz Reiner for RCA in Chicago or indeed Solti's digital/CD debut of the work with the same orchestra from the early 1980s. Solti treats the work very much as a showpiece with Decca engineering - perhaps a tad harsh in the manner of early DDD recordings - to match. I am sure collectors will have their own favourite versions just as fine. Again turn to Fischer and you have the ideal combination of stunning virtuosity allied to an intuitive feel for the folk-influenced idiom. Having heard this combination of conductor and orchestra live during their recent UK tour I can vouch for their extraordinary musical flair and technical skill. Meister and his worthy players are simply not in the same league. Normally I would offer different passages by way of comparing and contrasting the alternative discs. Here, there seems to be little point with the older performances trumping the new in every respect. Perhaps if the SACD format is of paramount importance that might be a consideration otherwise look elsewhere. In the Concerto at least, not bad, simply not anywhere near being the best.
Nick Barnard  

Masterwork Index: Bartok concerto for orchestra