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Bartok divertimento Vivaldi HDTT8417

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Divertimento for Strings, Sz.113 BB.118 (1939)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Concerto Grosso in B minor Op. 3 No. 10 (1711)
Concerto Grosso in D minor Op. 3 No. 11 (1711)
Moscow Chamber Orchestra/Rudolf Barshai
rec. 30 June & 1 July 1962, Decca Studios (West Hampstead Studio 3), London
Reviewed in 192Khz and 356Khz DXD flac downloads

Bartók and Vivaldi – an unexpected, some might say jarring, combination. However, this thoroughly enjoyable download represents a great introduction to the substantial achievements of Rudolf Barshai, and his creation the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.

Rudolf Barshai was a Soviet conductor, arranger and viola player who died in 2010 in Switzerland having defected originally from the Soviet Union to Israel in the 1970s. He left behind a great reputation with his fellow musicians; indeed, he was a member of an extraordinary group of great musicians from the Soviet era, and counted such greats as pianist Sviatoslav Richter, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and composer Dmitri Shostakovich amongst others as close friends. He was a founding member of the famous Borodin Quartet (1945), a world-famous quartet still active today. It has undergone many personnel changes during their career, but still contains one member, cellist Valentin Berlinsky, who has been a member almost since the beginning.

Barshai started the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in the 1950s, and it went on to have several compositions dedicated to it and the honour of performing the world premiere of Shostakovich’s 14th symphony. As a chamber orchestra under Barshai, they focused often on string orchestra performances, which is where this current download comes in. It is provided by HDTT in many formats, from 96Khz/24bit PCM FLAC to 352.8Khz/24bit DXD FLAC including DSD64 DSD128 formats and including options for a physical compact disc if required. Any purchaser should be able to find a suitable format.

It was recorded in 1962, by a top Decca team, and I first owned this as an LP many decades ago, and then as a CD (review). The recording quality was always of a very high quality for the period, with a nice bite to the strings in the Bartók, but also very musical, as shown in the Vivaldi. There is inevitably a little tape hiss, more audible in the quieter sections but it did not bother me. The team at HDTT have done an excellent job enhancing this quality, and it comes across as highly detailed, but with a pleasant analog style bloom in the sound.

The Divertimento for Strings was composed by Béla Bartók in 1939 shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Despite that grim timing, much of the work is energetic, building on the composers love and knowledge of folk music of eastern Europe, with its tangy textures. Only the central slow movement seems to reflect the fears of that time, depicting a deeply troubled state of mind.

The Allegro non troppo kicks off with a powerfully chugging rhythm, Barshai moving it at a medium fast tempo that preserves the strength of the opening without losing the strong forward momentum. The whole first movement is played with style and the tart rhythms and tunes come across very directly. The recording captures the interplay of solo instruments and tutti well (following the convention of the Concerto Grosso form of the 18th century). The dynamic range is impressive for the material. It captures the hushed moments while packing a punch in the tuttis.

The Molto adagio conveys an unsettled mood starting with a quiet winding tune, reaching an initial uncomfortable climactic chord at 2’47”. It continues in the same troubled manner, quiet sections building to increasingly tense climaxes. Barshai builds each climax carefully, and the tuttis emerge in their full contrasting glory. The composer gives us no pleasurable release in the movement; the troubled mood is developed as it proceeds.

The Allegro assai finale, played in a fast tempo, changes the mood again into one meeting the expectations of the work’s title, from the Italian divertire “to amuse". It is pushed along with great energy and animated rhythms, with plenty of impressive solo and combined playing.

A comparison with a recording by fellow Hungarian Georg Solti is useful in this context since he was pupil of Bartók in the Franz Liszt Conservatory in Budapest. He became one of the foremost Bartók interpreters, and this work plays well into Solti’s vigorous and lively approach. The Decca recording (Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1990) has some qualities similar to this current recording, great clarity and with a wide dynamic range. Solti’s performance is with a larger number of players, but is similarly propulsive in the opening movement, and slightly faster than Barshai. The HDTT recording has a slightly wider stereo image, and is quite immediate in its impact, as if you are listening in the first few rows of the concert hall. This adds grit and punch to the fast sections, revealing considerable detail in the playing. For example, the strings snap pizzicato (aka ‘Bartók pizzicato’) in the final movement, about one minute in, cut clearly through the overall orchestral sound. In comparison, the Solti appears to be recorded a little further back, and less wide stereo image, but still with a considerable amount of detail and great energy in the faster sections.

The couplings are very different of course. Solti’s performances have been released in several packages, but always with other Bartók works, for which Solti is almost always a great recommendation.   The Barshai performance of the Vivaldi concertos provides a perfect counterpoint to the Concerto Grosso elements in the Divertimento where the solo and tutti share the primary material.

The two Vivaldi concertos, 10 and 11 from the Op3 L’estro armonico set of twelve, published in 1711, receive stylish performances. Recorded in the early 1960s, this is not a performance that uses ‘original’ instruments or contemporary styles of Vivaldi’s time. However, Barshai’s forces are not large and his speeds preserve a lithe melodiousness. They provide a sweet dessert following the tougher main course. The performances include a clearly audible harpsichord continuo and display great musicality and skilled solo playing.

I chose to compare the approach with Christopher Hogwood’s 1985 recording with the Academy of Ancient Music on L’Oiseau Lyre.  Hogwood, in keeping with the general approach of ‘original’ instruments, takes faster tempos, and with a smaller orchestra grouping. Individual lines are very clear, given the very small number of players overall. The recording quality has a different feel from the Barshai, less analog bloom, more digital clarity, more silvery type sound to the high strings, in a way much more common in the digital recording era, but not unpleasant.

Listening to this Barshai recording, from sixty years ago now, it strikes me how lucky we are to be able to hear so many wonderful performances from the past in such excellent sound. The work HDTT and a few other specialist companies are doing in this area is extremely valuable for any discerning music lover.

I listened to this recording in 192Khz and 356Khz DXD flac downloads, and mainly through headphones. Both were excellent; my 65-year-old ears did not perceive a major difference in quality.

Ian Orbell

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