Deutsche Grammophon seems to have a weakness for allowing conductors in their
autumn years to revisit their favourite works - one thinks of Bernstein,
Bohm and Karajan, the last-named conductor re-recording what he termed his
"interior repertoire" in the last seven years of his life for DG. A decade
later, Pierre Boulez is re-recording his "interior repertoire" and of course
it is the very antipodes of the mainstream works which Karajan favoured.
This disc is the latest in a whole series of Bartok recordings which Boulez
has set down in the recording studio for DG, on this occasion with the assistance
of the talented American-born soloist Gil Shaham.
Although the performance of the Concerto may be the most technically accurate
reading of this work on record, it is dangerously lacking in fire and energy.
The music occasionally sounds rather bloodless and comfortable, hardly qualities
one would wish for in the more dynamic passages. It is well played (by soloist
and orchestra alike), almost to a fault - smooth, polished and urbane, conjuring
up images of a well-manicured lawn rather than the raw Hungarian landscape.
Its replete sounding nature is borne out by the timing - at over 40 minutes
it is a good five minutes longer than most of its rivals.
The Rhapsodies are more than just a fill-up - they are superbly played by
both soloist and orchestra and it is refreshing to hear Boulez slumming it
in tonal gypsy music! The evocative timbre of the cimbalom is used to good
effect in the friss part of the First Rhapsody, a strange mixture of Kodaly's
Hary Janos and the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" from Copland's Appalachian
In sum, the Concerto is consummately well played, though on the whole lacks
a certain Hungarian chutzpah. In a brief quote at the start of the notes
accompanying the CD, Gil Shaham describes the music as "powerful" and
"sensitive". The sensitive side of the Concerto is well characterised in
this thoughtful and polished performance - it is the power and energy of
it which I find curiously lacking. Worth exploring if you warm to a Karajan-like
smooth perfection in your interpretations. The Rhapsodies are finely-crafted,
good humoured pieces which deserve greater exposure in the concert hall.