Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (CD review)

Also, Music for strings, percussion and Celesta; Viola Concerto; Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra; Sonata for two pianos and percussion. Tabea Zimmermann, viola; Katia and Marielle Labeque, pianos; Sir Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra; David Shallon, Symphonie Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. EMI 50999 0 94627 2 4 (2-disc set).

If you are a fan of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) and you don't already have the performances in this two-disc EMI set, this might be the easiest and cheapest way to get them. Or, if you are largely unfamiliar with Bartok's work, this might also be the easiest and cheapest way to sample some of his more-popular of pieces. In either case, you'll get fine readings in good sound, a solid bargain all the way around.

The first disc opens with what is probably Bartok's most celebrated music, the Concerto for Orchestra, Sz116, his last completed orchestral work, written just a year before his death. It's a little ironic that after a lifetime of composition, his final piece of music might be his most-lasting contribution to the classical repertoire. Bartok noted in his program for the piece that the "concerto" of the title referred to the work's "tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner." As an overview, the composer suggested the work makes a transition from the stark grimness of the opening movements to the "death song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one."

One could not want a better interpretation of the piece than Sir Simon Rattle's with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He's graceful when he needs to be graceful, as in the second movement; he's mysterious when he needs to be, as in the third movement; he's eccentrically romantic when he needs to be, as in the fourth movement; and he's exciting when he needs to be, as in the Finale.

If I still have a preference for Fritz Reiner's performance (RCA) or either of Georg Solti's (Decca), it's not by a wide margin and only because I think RCA and Decca more vividly recorded them. EMI made Rattle's disc live in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England, in 1992, and it sounds a bit too close-up yet soft to my ears. In addition to which we have to live with a final, attention-breaking applause.

The second item on disc one is Bartok's Music for strings, percussion and Celesta, Sz106, from 1936, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. OK, admittedly, this performance doesn't have quite as much fire in its belly as Solti's, but I've always enjoyed it and thought it was by far the best recorded of the bunch. Like most of Bartok's music, this one is also in concertante form, that is, with orchestral support for extended solo parts, although we really don't hear the solo instruments until the second of the four movements. With Ormandy, the emphasis is on the fluidity of the instrumentation and the smoothness and eloquence of the rhythms. He makes what can sometimes be a rather noisy series of unrelated segments into a beautifully unified (and beautifully performed) whole, with an especially zesty final movement. The sound, recorded by EMI at the Old Met, Philadelphia, in 1978, is just as close as it is in the Rattle performance that precedes it, yet it has greater depth and clarity, and it comes without an audience and its attendant applause.

Disc two provides three works. The first is the Viola Concerto, Sz120, with Tabea Zimmermann playing the viola and David Shallon leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Bartok left the work unfinished at his death, and a pupil, Tibor Sirly, completed it. I've never cared much for it, but certainly Zimmermann plays it as well as anybody, and EMI's recording from 1989 is as clear and natural as one could want.

Finally, we get Bartok's Sonata for two pianos and percussion, Sz110, 1937, and the Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra, Sz115, 1941, the latter a rewrite of the former with added orchestral accompaniment. In the first two movements, you would probably not even notice the presence or absence of the orchestra, and it's only in the final movement that the orchestra comes into its own in the Concerto. Yet, even here you have to ask yourself if it's necessary. In any case, the playing by the Labeques, with Rattle and the CBSO in the Concerto, and the recording, made in 1985, are all exemplary.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa