Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945) Concerto for Orchestra, Sz116 (1945) [38:15] The Miraculous Mandarin, Sz73 (1926) [31:18]
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
rec. Boston, 1994 NEWTON CLASSICS 8802029 [69:33]
In his early career, the young firebrand and Bernstein protégé Seiji Ozawa could be relied upon for capable and enthusiastic performances. He revitalised the Toronto Symphony during his brief directorship and made recordings with major orchestras in Boston, Chicago and London. Upon his accession to the Boston directorship, Ozawa seemed to lose his vitality, frequently serving up smooth but disengaged performances - they ran on the musical equivalent of cruise control. So it's a pleasure to hear him return to his energised youthful form in parts of this concert recording of the Concerto for Orchestra.
The first movement, in particular, is not only involving but musically insightful. The string phrases in the introduction, beginning at 1:24, register as broad themes, rather than merely as motifs awaiting an event. At 4:17, similarly, the way Ozawa balances and shapes the woodwind decorations around the second theme, we can hear that they're based on the movement's main theme. The conductor keeps up the momentum between sections - attacking the phrase at 3:39, for example, without the usual short pause - and projects the rhythms with an undulating lift. For once, you really feel the music's triple meter as you don't in Ozawa's early Chicago Symphony version (EMI), or, indeed, in most other performances. He allows room for sensitive solo playing: the oboe at 4:44 is delicate and evocative, the clarinet at 6:45 plaintive, the English horn at 6:56 tender.
The other movements don't always reach this level. At the start of the Giuoco delle coppie, the snare-drum sets a clear, steady tempo, but the bassoon duet immediately picks up speed, making the whole thing sound glib. The movement is handsomely played - the brass chords are full and legato. The Elegia is colourful but episodic. Unexpectedly, the Intermezzo interrotto regains the expressive form of the opening. The dusky strings sing the lyric theme with sombre dignity; the trombone interruption is a bit offhand, but the theme's quiet return after that, at 3:05, is wistful.
There's some dazzling playing in the Finale: at the start, the Boston strings are thrilling in the whirling figures, the punctuating chords are incisive, and the scurrying woodwinds at 1:17 are deft. The conductor treats this movement, like the Elegia, as a series of loosely connected episodes - as early as 1:58, the little woodwind fugue is allowed to lose momentum - and it wanders.
Ozawa and the Bostonians previously "had at" the Miraculous Mandarin for DG, in a soulless, unfeeling traversal of the suite version. This newer performance, this time of the complete ballet, is an improvement, particularly when the textures are lighter. The woodwinds here are polished rather than overtly expressive, though the oboe brings real tenderness to the solo at 3:05 of the Allegretto (track 7). The sustained midrange strings at the start of the Adagio (track 10) are lovely. The final scene strikes a nice range of haunting colours and moods, with the precise, blended wordless chorus properly functioning as another "instrument" within the ensemble.
Unfortunately, the brass benches didn't get the memo, perpetuating the wrong features of the earlier recording. The contrast is marked at the very start of the piece: the strings shape their scalar flourishes with thrust and point, but the brasses bash at their entries indiscriminately. In the tuttis, the "wall of sound" effect comes off as just so much noise.
If you want the Concerto for Orchestra played by the musical heirs of its dedicatees, go with one of its earlier recordings. Critical consensus favoured Kubelik (DG), especially upon its initial release, but I remain partial to the clean, colourful Leinsdorf (RCA). The Mandarin music is more of a problem: most conductors play it as "Age of Steel" music, which it emphatically isn't. One of the few who understands that is Martinon (RCA, last seen in the Classical Navigator series), leading the Chicago Symphony in a vividly coloured rendition of the suite.
Stephen Francis Vasta Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.