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Presto Classical
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Three Village Scenes, Sz.79 (1924/1926) [10:27]
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz.116 (1943) [36:01]
Kossuth (1901) [19:53]
SLUK Slovakian Folk Ensemble Choir
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. June 1997, Italian Institute, Budapest
PHILIPS 476 7255 [67:04]

This disc was, as I recall, widely praised when it was first issued but it fell victim to the deletions axe. Happily, it is now available again, as a CD or download, through Presto Classical’s Manufacture on Demand Service.

A little while ago the featured work in our MusicWeb International Recommends feature was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. In common with a number of my colleagues I suggested Fritz Reiner’s classic 1955 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (review). If at that time I had had access to this recording by Iván Fischer I might instead have joined two of my colleagues in commending this recording. That’s not because my admiration for the Reiner performance has diminished. However, the Fischer traversal is superb and arguably he finds more warmth and wit in the piece than Reiner.

In the first movement Fischer makes the Introduzione spooky and tense. Once the main Allegro vivace is reached the performance has tremendous detail and definition. The playing of the Budapest Festival Orchestra is highly accomplished and I especially relished the crisp attack, not least from the brass section. There’s bite and wit in Giuoco delle coppie. The opening of Elegia is marvellously controlled; the hushed strings and woodwind swirls really capture the attention. Fischer’s account of this movement features many wonderful dynamic contrasts and there’s a potent atmosphere. The Intermezzo interrotto has passages of warmth and much mordant wit. The latter is particularly in evidence when Bartók introduces his mocking little quotation from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. The playing in this movement is pointed and expert. Fine though the performance has been up to now, it’s in the finale that Fischer and his team really deliver the goods and nail this recording on as one of the top recommendations for the work. There’s fabulous virtuosity on display here but it’s not virtuosity of the “because we can” type. Rather, the virtuosity is allied to genuine excitement and pleasure in delivering this music; this is a marvellously spirited performance of Bartók’s finale, crowning a terrific recording.

The Concerto for Orchestra was stimulated by a commission from Serge Koussevitzky and the great conductor was also responsible for the orchestral version of Village Scenes. Bartók had composed a five-movement work for female voice and piano in 1924 during what was a very happy time in his life. When Koussevitzky prompted the American League of Composers to offer the Hungarian composer a commission in 1926 he re-worked three of the movements, scoring them for a chamber orchestra and female chorus in the outer movements – the central movement was left for a solo voice.

The music is based on some Slovak women’s folk songs that Bartók had collected in 1915-16. The first of the three movements, ‘Wedding’ is mainly vigorous and exuberant. The second movement, ‘Lullaby’ is an extraordinary creation: the solo voice sings a haunting, fragile lullaby against a very intriguing, ghostly accompaniment. Shamefully, the soloist, who sings very well, is not named. The final movement, ‘Lad’s Dance’, has pungent, vigorous accompaniment while the vocal parts demand, and here receive, great energy. This is a fine performance of this short, earthy score but it’s a great pity that Philips didn’t see fit to provide any texts or translations.

Kossuth is an early work, composed while Bartók was gripped, like many of his fellow Hungarians at the turn of the twentieth century, with nationalist fervour. The piece was inspired by Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894), who was a leading figure in the unsuccessful attempt in 1848-49 to win Hungary independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The piece is clearly indebted to the examples of the symphonic poems of Liszt and Richard Strauss. It contains some ripe and passionate music. The orchestral scoring doesn’t begin to match the distinctive and highly imaginative sound-world that can be heard in, say, Concerto for Orchestra or Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Nonetheless, the piece is colourfully scored and this often-impassioned work is well worth hearing. Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra make a very strong case for it

This is a very rewarding disc. It contains what is surely one of the finest recorded accounts of the Concerto for Orchestra while the remainder of the programme is stimulating and valuable. The recorded sound is very good, the notes are serviceable.

If you missed these recordings first time round then you’ll share my pleasure that they are once again available. Details of this and all the other recordings available under licence from Presto Classical can be found here.

John Quinn