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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra, BB123 [36:26]
Dance Suite, BB86 [16:12]]
The Miraculous Mandarin, BB2 [17:45]]
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, BB114 [27:47]
Divertimento for Strings, BB118 [23:04]
Hungarian Sketches, BB103 [11:01]]
Romanian Folk Dances, BB76 [6:08]
London Symphony Orchestra (CD1 and CD2 Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta), Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, December 10 and 14, 1963 (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta), December 17 and 31, 1963 (Miraculous Mandarin), February 15, 20 & 26, 1965 (Concerto for Orchestra), May 7, 1965 (Dance Suite), Orchestra Hall, Chicago, January 22 and February 2-3 (Divertimento), November 11 & 13, 1993 (Romanian Folk Dances), Nov 20, 1993 (Hungarian Sketches)
DECCA 4806872 [70:22 + 68:27]

A few years ago, Decca issued a 2 CD set that brought together pretty well all Solti’s Bartók recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the 1980s and 90s. This new issue contains some of those recordings alongside earlier ones with the LSO; as you can see, of the seven works on the two discs, the first four are with the LSO, and these pieces make for an especially interesting comparison with Solti’s Chicago performances of the same repertoire. Perhaps the most interesting thing is how little his interpretations changed across a long period of time – over twenty years in some cases. Also interesting is that the LSO recording of the great Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, made in 1963, has never before been released on CD by Decca. This made me wonder if it might be in some way ‘below par’; but not a bit of it! It is a thrilling and brilliantly accomplished performance, the whole ensemble admirably secure in what is one of the most demanding pieces in the orchestral repertoire.

The 1960s were a golden era for LSO/Decca, not only with Solti at the helm, but also conductors such as Kertész, Previn and Barbirolli. The performances on CD1 are very much in that class, with a stunning Concerto for Orchestra. In its earthy passion, this is for me superior to the later, very fine, Chicago version, and I doubt if there’s a finer one on disc. The same goes for the Dance Suite, whose innocuous sounding title betrays one of Bartók’s most brilliant and radical orchestral works. Similarly, The Miraculous Mandarin, which completes the disc, rivals The Rite of Spring in its visceral energy and wild imaginings.

After the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, CD2 continues with the Divertimento for Strings. These two works, composed in 1936 and ’38 respectively, are true companion pieces, in that they were both written for the great Paul Sacher and his Basle Chamber Orchestra. Once again, Solti, now with the Chicago SO, comes up trumps in a no-holds-barred performance which brings out the extreme contrasts Bartók asks for. The inexorable build-up of sinister trills in the Adagio molto generates horrific tension and foreboding – a mood of those pre-war years this composer was able to express perhaps better than anybody. Solti’s vivid characterisation extends to the final Allegro assai, where the folksy main theme alternates with, in one place, a violin cadenza that is like ‘The Lark Ascending’ gone slightly wrong, and in another with a sly polka complete with sarcastic slides in the violins. These tracks are probably the highlight of the entire issue for me. The slight but delicious Hungarian Sketches and Romanian Folk Dances provide a gentle and satisfying return to terra firma.

People sometimes say that they find Solti too exhausting – there’s too much sheer nervous energy, they complain. I have some sympathy; and yet, and yet…..this is just fantastic music-making, bracing, exhilarating, and at less than Ł14, a priceless reminder of what an extraordinary conductor and musician he was.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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