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Twentieth-Century Masterpieces
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116 [36:28]
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz 106 [26:44]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
L’Oiseau de feu: Suite (1919 version) [19:16]
Le Sacre du printemps [32:12]
Le Chant du Rossignol – Počme symphonique [20:19
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1867)
Háry János: Suite [22:23]
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/Eduard van Beinum
rec. September 1946 (Le Sacre du printemps), September 1948 (Concerto for Orchestra), April 1956 (Háry János), October 1955 (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta), April 1956 (L’Oiseau de feu), May 1956 (Le Chant du Rossignol)
ELOQUENCE 482 5563 [82:45 + 75:10]

Here’s over two and a half hours of superb music played by one of the world’s great orchestras under one of their finest conductors, all for less than Ł15 – sounds like incredible value. Well, maybe; but……there is an element of Curate’s Egg about this, so it’s ‘buyer beware’.

Some of the recordings here were made in what you could call the early modern era of recording, i.e. the mid-1950s, and they are mostly very fine. But there are also two pieces recorded in the 1940s – The Rite of Spring and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra – and these are, at best, of strictly historical interest, as not only is the sound quality very poor, but the balance of the original recordings was highly eccentric, especially in the case of the Stravinsky.

Eduard van Beinum was in charge of the Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1939 until his death in 1959 (of a heart-attack sustained while rehearsing the orchestra). He took over from Wilhelm Mengelberg, and, though they shared the post for some years, the two men couldn’t have been more different. Mengelberg was an old-school authoritarian, often a tyrant and a bully, whereas van Beinum always sought a creative collaboration with his musicians. The result was that the world-class status of the orchestra was confirmed, and taken to an even higher level – and with much happier members!

The best of the items here reflect that approach, illustrating van Beinum’s remarkable feeling for contemporary music; let’s remember that some of these works were quite new to orchestras and audiences at the time of these sessions, notably the two Bartók pieces. I’ve already mentioned my misgivings about the Concerto for Orchestra, but the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta receives a very fine performance. The Concertgebouw strings are outstanding, and the engineers have secured a balance of the forces that is convincing, despite the early date. Van Beinum steers the whole thing with absolute mastery, and the outrageous originality as well as the sheer passion of this music comes through powerfully. Much the same is true of Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale, and the haunting trumpet solo (the fisherman’s song in the Chinese tale on which the work is based) is most sensitively played.

The Firebird Suite in its 1919 version, is less successful because the recording quality is much poorer than the last three discussed above. The sound is shrill, with for example, the huge brass chords at the very end lacking in depth and weight, which is not entirely the fault of conductor or players (though I have to say, this is some of the least impressive playing I have heard from this great ensemble). Elsewhere the lovely bassoon lullaby of the Berceuse is well-nigh inaudible, and the balance is generally less than ideal. Where, for heaven’s sake, are those huge bass drum thumps in the Infernal Dance?

The final item on CD2, Kodály’s Háry János Suite of 1927, fares much better. The eponymous Háry is a Münchhausen-like teller of tall yarns – single-handedly defeating Napoleon, wooed by an Austrian princess and so on. Van Beinum and his players brings out the humour and the wild fantasy of these wonderful pieces, and though I still cling to my beloved Kertész recording with the LSO (from about ten years later), I thoroughly enjoyed this performance.

So, a mixed bag; it’s tempting to wish that one could have CD2 on its own, but that would mean missing out on the splendid Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. For sure, admirers of van Beinum and his wonderful orchestra will want to have the whole thing.
I can’t finish without mentioning the glaring error on the back of the case: in case you were wondering, no, Bartók didn’t compose The Rite of Spring!

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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