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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz106 / BB 114 (1936) [29:59]
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116 BB123 (1943) [38:20]
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki
rec. Helsinki Music Centre, Finland, May 2019 (Music), May-June 2018 (Concerto)
Stereo/Surround 5.0, reviewed in surround sound
BIS BIS2378 SACD [69:09]

With such oft-recorded repertoire, one’s first reaction is to ask if the performances are good enough to compete for space on the library shelf, and sound as good as the best among the others. A surround SACD must also hold its own as a reproduction of orchestral sound in a real space. I could simply say yes, yes and yes, but let me add details.

Béla Bartók was one of the great colourists of Twentieth Century music. Like Ravel and Debussy in particular, he could create sounds never heard before from exactly the same forces as every other composer. Both scores exemplify this. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta may be the best example; just consider a superbly deep pianissimo bass drum stroke in the first movement, and a wonderfully controlled slow crescendo in the third movement. Now, this requires the orchestra to play such difficult music accurately and the conductor to have the skill to balance the results; inevitably the recording team helps with home listening.

BIS, as usual, delivers first-class recording. I could close my eyes and imagine the orchestra in my room, without loss of details or the acoustic space. I am well aware that surround recording has been successfully talked almost out of existence, so well-done BIS for continuing to fly the flag! I believe it was Peter Walker of Quad who suggested that a recording requires a precise volume level to be “in focus”: certainly true of this disc in my room. My first play-through impressed me greatly; a second, a couple of decibels higher, revealued Susanna Mälkki’s expertise in balance. Bartók’s fine ear for orchestration shows through clearly, reminding one what superb compositions these are.

There is no right way to perform any piece of music, and a serious classical music enthusiast will always enjoy a different viewpoint. I promptly got the old Decca recordings by the LSO and Solti off the shelf: the Concerto in a fine Japanese SACD remastering, the Music in a 180-gram LP remastering. These were just as clear, even if only in stereo, but the interpretations were much more angular and aggressive. Where Mälkki frequently finds beauty, Solti finds precision, a characteristic throughout the comparison. The Helsinki strings sound like a smaller group than the 1960s LSO, and the wind sound differs in timbre. Even so, both convey the music superbly well.

I could have continued with plenty of other choices, and I am confident I would still regard this newcomer as an excellent addition to that library shelf. The disc comes with Arnold Whittal’s excellent set of notes. The issue, in the BIS card folder, saves on plastic and takes up less space on the shelf. Recommended with enthusiasm.

Dave Billinge

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