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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123, Sz.116 [38:00]
Rhapsody for Violin & Orchestra No. 1, BB 94b, Sz. 87 [15:32]
Part 2 of Rhapsody No. 1, Sz. 87, BB 94b: II. (Second Version) [10:21]
Rhapsody for Violin & Orchestra No. 2, BB 96b, Sz. 90 [10:29]
Dance Suite BB 86A [16:21]
James Ehnes (violin)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2016/17, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway

In 2013 Edward Gardner and Chandos gave us a much-praised Bartók SACD recording with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, offering the Miraculous Mandarin suite and the Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta. If that is the more abrasive end of orchestral Bartók, here we have his most approachable pieces in that category. The orchestra is now the Bergen Philharmonic, of which Gardner became Chief Conductor in 2015, and we have a soloist in James Ehnes, who has already recorded Bartók’s violin concertos and the viola concerto for Chandos with some success. So this issue has a lot going for it even before you listen, and fortunately it then lives up to the promise of that pedigree.

The main item is the Concerto for Orchestra, described by Bartók in his programme notes for its premiere, as a “symphony-like orchestral work” and “a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.” There is plenty of virtuoso opportunity for the musicians, hence the work’s title, but the clue to a great performance is in that “symphony-like” description—does the conductor make it all sound coherent, and lead us on a “symphony-like” journey? The Bergen players are well up to the virtuoso demands, and Gardner is a sure guide, setting convincing tempi throughout.
The Concerto opens with an Introduzione, beginning andante non troppo and leading to the main allegro vivace. That slow opening has plenty of mystery, almost like that of his opera Bluebeard’s Castle, and the allegro passages are given a fine impetus. The calm passages that alternate with the allegro ones never become too static, so the movement hangs together. The second movement Giuoco delle coppie (“Play of pairs”) is taken at a true allegretto scherzando, not too slow as one sometimes hears, so that the solemn brass chorale in the middle provides a proper contrast. The recording helps here, too—the opening side-drum has a tactile quality, and one can really hear the different intervals of the paired instruments (bassoons in sixths, oboes in thirds, then clarinets a seventh apart, and so on). With the third movement Elegia we again enter Bartók’s characteristic realm of mystery, beautifully portrayed by the sensitive playing. The Intermezzo interrotto (“Interrupted intermezzo”) is playfully delineated, even that notorious “interruption” when Bartók blows raspberries at one passage in Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. It was an unhappy idea from a man of Bartók’s integrity, but the Gods of Art take their revenge—it is the weakest moment in the score. The Bergen players make the most of it though, with shrieking woodwinds and flatulent trombones. The presto finale flies out of the blocks and ends with a real blaze. If the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by the Hungarians Reiner in the 1950s and Solti in the 1980s (and the Frenchman Boulez in the 1990s) ultimately make still more of this work, these Norwegian musicians under their English conductor nonetheless do it full justice too.

The folk-inflected and virtuosic two-movement Violin Rhapsodies 1 & 2 are both excellently played by James Ehnes, who has an obvious feel for the idiom. He is a bit straighter than Hungarians like Szekely (in the original chamber version with the composer at the piano) or Kelemen in the orchestral version, but not every account of the Rhapsodies has to be smothered in paprika to sound idiomatic. Although the First Rhapsody is the more popular, some Bartók authorities assert the supremacy of number two, and it certainly sounds the better work in this account. Ehnes gives us both versions of the First Rhapsody’s second movement, with its different ending. Bartók provided both Rhapsodies with an alternative second movement, without the return of first movement material, so that they could be played independently of their first movements. Kelemen, with the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra under Kocsis on Hungaroton, includes both the original and revised second movements for both Rhapsodies on his disc.
The disc ends with an enchanting account of the Dance Suite (an item more substantial than its title suggests), making a successful close to a very successful disc. The foot-stamping movements are infectious, and each dance well characterised, with the returns of the little ritornello touchingly done.

Exact comparisons with rival discs are tricky. The Concerto and the Dance Suite are also coupled by Solti, but for an SACD with those two works the competition is principally from the superb Zoltán Kocsis on Hungaroton. (To get Barnabás Kelemen’s superb Rhapsodies though you will need a second Hungaroton SACD). So this issue offers, I think, a unique collection among modern Bartók recordings, very well recorded, and with a useful booklet note (except that it is silent on the versions of the Rhapsodies, not even acknowledging the presence of the alternative movement offered on the disc). It is a very generous (80 minutes) and very desirable set of contrasting Bartók works. In fact, it would make the ideal introduction to the composer, or a fine modern addition to a collection in which the classic recordings are already well represented.

Roy Westbrook



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