Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945) Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116 (1944) [38:22]
Viola Concerto, Op. posth. (1945, completed by Tibor Serly, 1949) [21:50]
Daniel Benyamini (viola) Boston Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelik (Sz116)
Orchestre de Paris/Daniel Barenboim
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, November 1973 (Sz116); La Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, April 1978 ELOQUENCE 480 0713 [60:22]
In my review of Seiji Ozawa's Boston account of the Concerto for Orchestra (Newton Classics 8802029), in discussing the orchestra’s previous recordings, I perhaps too readily dismissed that conducted by Rafael Kubelik in favor of the earlier one under Leinsdorf (RCA). Revisiting Kubelik’s version now, after these several decades, I have a better idea of what some of the fuss was about, at least.
Kubelik’s vivid, colourful reading takes little for granted in what was already, by 1973, a standard-repertoire piece. The unusually spacious opening, sustained vibrantly by the Boston basses, is misleading: this is, above all, a flowing performance. The conductor mostly keeps things moving, even as he draws expression from the lyrical themes: the oboe’s nervous second theme in the first movement, say, or the woodwind themes of the Intermezzo interrotto -- the phrases at the end of the movement are almost pleading. The passages that require forward drive -- the first movement’s climactic tutti, and the Finale’s whirling figurations -- come off smartly, but Kubelik also brings these pages a purposeful sense of shape and inflection. The conductor also highlights contrasts of colour and texture. In a number of passages -- the first is at 4:03 of the first movement -- he lets us hear rather more of the interplay of parts than usual; fortunately, this serves to enrich the sonorities rather than to draw focus. Even within the string body, Kubelik plays timbres against each other, drawing full-throated outpourings of sound on the lyrical phrases. Even in the Giuoco delle coppie, where the contrasts are built into the concept, the brass chorales sound particularly full and rich.
After the clean, forward lines of Kubelik’s Concerto for Orchestra, with the Boston Symphony in top form, the Orchestre de Paris inevitably sounds woozier and thicker in the Viola Concerto. The conducting and the engineering may both be responsible. Daniel Barenboim lays out the main lines warmly and expressively, but everything else is reduced to a sort of generalized background wash behind the soloist. The engineers may be partly to blame as well: it certainly sounds as if they’ve helped out with the violins’ dramatic interjections in the first movement. Even the finale’s Hungarian folk rhythms don’t get the crisp precision they really want. Daniel Benyamini is a fine soloist, secure in the unaccompanied invocation at the start of the piece, though the occasional bass plunks beneath are soggy. Most of the time, he doesn’t particularly bring out the “viola” colours, though he digs into some of the attacks on the lower strings nicely, and he’s dusky and fervent in the slow movement.
The reproduction is very good, but not quite ideal. The Concerto for Orchestra certainly sounds more forward and present than it did on vinyl, where Kubelik’s subtler nuances could get lost. The quiet, ominous strokes that open the Elegia, for example, now register cleanly, though, later in the movement, the trumpet is peaky and obtrusive. The Viola Concerto sounds all right, though the splashy final tutti is slightly edgy; the horns in the second movement, however, register in a natural perspective.