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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Kossuth – Symphonic Poem, Sz.75a (1903) [19:52]
Two Portraits, Op. 5, Sz.37 (1907-08) [12:40]
Suite No. 1, Op. 3, Sz.60 (1905, rev. 1920) [37:09]
Michael Ludwig (violin) (Portraits)
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. live, Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, 22-23 November 2013 (Kossuth, Portraits), 19-20 October 2013 (Suite). DDD
NAXOS 8.573307 [69:42]

I was impressed by an earlier release on Naxos with the Buffalo Philharmonic under JoAnn Falletta of three orchestral pieces by Dohnányi. This Bartók disc is also good, but Falletta has more competition than she did for the other CD. All three works on this disc are from the early part of Bartók’s career and show the strong influence of such composers as Liszt and Richard Strauss. Indeed, there is little hint of the great composer Bartók was to become. Nevertheless, the compositions are colourfully orchestrated and hold one’s attention for the most part.

Following in the footsteps of Strauss, Bartók entered the world of the narrative tone poem in his early twenties. Unlike the older composer, though, he did not turn out the masterpiece Strauss did with Don Juan. Kossuth owes rather more to Franz Liszt and does not avoid the bombast redolent in many of that Hungarian’s orchestral compositions. Still, Kossuth maintains interest with its opulent orchestration and heroic themes. It comprises a series of ten vignettes, played without pause, on the life of the Hungarian lawyer, journalist, and freedom fighter Lajos Kossuth. Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic have the measure of the music, even if the orchestra can sound a bit rough around the edges. The trumpets, for example, become rather strident at times. One may question whether refinement is an aspect the work requires. While these artists capture the essence of the music, Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Philips) are that much more exciting and get a warmer, fuller sound than that provided for Falletta.

The same goes for the Two Portraits, the first of which Bartók borrowed from his 1907 unpublished violin concerto. Michael Ludwig and his accompanists perform the first of these, Ideal: Andante, very well, though I prefer Shlomo Mintz’s tone and subtler vibrato on his account with Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony (DG). The Buffalo Philharmonic’s oboe solo about half way through this piece is memorable and, in general, I am impressed with the orchestra’s woodwinds. However, it is the second piece, Grotesque: Presto, where Falletta’s account sounds especially tepid next to Abbado’s speedier version.

I was not familiar with the Suite No. 1. The influence of Liszt, Strauss, and Dohnányi are prevalent. It is very well orchestrated, the second movement having an Eastern-sounding English horn solo that is beautifully played here. The fourth movement contains nice writing for clarinet and horn and has some real Hungarian flavour. Falletta and the Buffalo orchestra do a fine job in this suite, but it is not a work I shall return to often. While pleasant enough, its themes do not readily stick in the mind.

Naxos has provided full, bold sound and there are good notes by Edward Yadzinski. This disc will be a draw primarily if it is this particular combination of pieces you seek. For Kossuth, though, I would stay with Fischer whose account is on the same disc as his superlative performance of the Concerto for Orchestra.

Leslie Wright