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Zoltan KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Concerto for Orchestra [16.25]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra [39.00]
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Jakub Hrůša
rec. 2017, Haus des Rundfunks (rbb), Grosser Sendesaal, Berlin
Reviewed in Surround 5.0
PENTATONE PTC5186626 SACD [55.30]

This is a welcome and surprisingly rare coupling. Kodály and Bartók were born within eighteen months of each other. They knew each other from about 1906, having studied and met at the Budapest Academy of Music, and carried out ethno-musicological research together. By 1908 they commenced a detailed study of Magyar folk music, collecting and recording a large amount of it. They remained lifelong friends. Bartók was responsible for the score of Kodály's Concerto reaching the USA since he carried it with him in 1940 when he left Hungary. Both concertos were commissioned by American orchestras, Kodály’s by the Chicago Symphony and Bartók’s by the Boston Symphony; the first performances took place within three years of each other, Kodály's in 1941 and Bartok's in 1944. The greatest difference was the subsequent popularity of the two pieces, Bartók's gained instant success and stayed firmly in the repertoire of almost every significant orchestra in the world whilst Kodály's dropped out of sight. This last fact is strange, for Kodály's piece is very attractive and it is hard to understand why it should have disappeared from the concert platform so completely.

Kodály was just one of an extraordinary roster of composers called upon to write for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony in 1941. The orchestra's own program notes name the following - and this is not a complete list: Stravinsky, Harris, Casella, Walton, Milhaud, Gličre, Miaskowski and Kodály. An interesting aside to this list is that Bohuslav Martinů does not appear on it, presumably because having only arrived in the USA in the first half of 1941 he did not gain recognition in the country until the following year.  By contrast, Zoltan Kodály was in full production when the request came, having just written the Dances of Galánta for Budapest and the Peacock Variations for Amsterdam. His contribution was a lively and imaginative piece for full orchestra lasting a little under 20 minutes. Its five sections are played without a break. They take a somewhat neo-Baroque form, with three fast sections based on similar material separated by two sections marked largo. The busy opening allegro risoluto is in fact somewhat reminiscent of Martinů with repetitive rhythmic patterns and tremendous energy. The first largo is a grander creation but lasts only a few minutes before rhythmic activity returns, interrupted by largo number two and leading to the return of a newly energised allegro risoluto as an affirmative coda. It is a very appealing piece indeed, especially performed like this.

The Bartók is of course very well-known and has been recorded many times. The catalogue is packed with famous names including Boulez, Fischer, van Beinum, Kubelík, Blomstedt, Koussevitzky, Solti, Maazel, Reiner and Karajan, to name but a few. Since Jakub Hrůša is a new kid on the block, being just 36 and only now shooting to the top of the list of celebrity conductors, it is worth asking if his performance is good enough to match the Soltis and Karajans of the musical firmament. It is certainly very well played and recorded. The Berlin Radio Symphony has a long and important history; they are recognised as Berlin's top orchestra after the Berlin Philharmonic. Hrůša views the Concerto as a work of the utmost refinement and gives it a wide-ranging treatment, from the grandeur of the opening movement to the frivolity of the fourth. Heard as a stand-alone performance it is a well-executed and sensitive reading which stands up well to the competition. But don't do what I did and compare it with the London Symphony and Solti recorded by Decca and John Culshaw in the golden days of the 60s. They are on a different planet in terms of recording philosophy as well as the Hungarian panache displayed by a young Solti. I have the Japanese SACD reissue and it sounds wonderful. None of this takes anything away from the Berliners and Jakub Hrůša, who represent a modern approach to recorded performance: more distant and less dramatic in sound, as well as more sensitively considered musically. It isn't equally exciting but it is very good indeed. I would say buy both but most collectors will already have Solti. This disc is most important in directing our attention towards Kodály's Concerto - and of course it is a very fine surround recording, reproducing the spaciousness of the BRSO's main hall with considerable realism.

Dave Billinge


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