Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (CD review)

Also, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572486.

As so often happens in the world of classical recording, it's damned if you do and damned if you don't. I mean, when a conductor and orchestra have to decide on what piece to record, should they go with a relatively unknown commodity and lose potential buyers who have never heard of the work, or should they go with a popular piece and risk losing potential buyers who already have multiple favorite recordings of it? In the case of Marin Alsop and her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, they have chosen in Bartok to go head-to-head with Fritz Reiner's celebrated RCA recording and both of Georg Solti's high-powered Decca performances. That Ms. Alsop and her team acquit themselves reasonably well on this low-priced Naxos disc is a testament to their talents, which do justice to the composer.

The disc begins with probably the most celebrated music of Hungarian Bela Bartok (1881-1945), the Concerto for Orchestra, the composer's last completed orchestral work, premiered just a year before his death. It's somewhat ironic that after a lifetime of writing music, his final composition would be his most-lasting contribution to the classical library. Bartok said that he titled the piece a "concerto" because of its "tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner." He also noted that the work transitions from the stark grimness of the opening movements, to a "death song" in the third movement, and to a "life-assertion" theme in the last.

Anyway, Ms. Alsop treats this death-to-life progression as well as almost anyone, although there are times when one wishes she had made the contrasts even more pointed. Best of all, she never sentimentalizes or glamorizes the music in the style of, say, a Karajan. She keeps it spare.

The second-movement Allegretto moves along at a graceful, if fairly leisurely, pace. It lightens the mood considerably.  In the third-movement Bartok turns to dark yet lyrical material, which the composer described as a "misty texture of rudimentary motifs." Like the description, the music seems rather generalized, and Alsop handles it in a kind of wispy, dreamlike way, building in mysterious, almost spooky intensity as it goes along, a "lugubrious deathsong," as Bartok called it.

Next, we find a brief Intermezzo borrowing (or parodying) Shostakovich that sets up the dance rhythms of the Finale: Presto, where Bartok went all out to show the vibrancy of life. Alsop treats it gently, yet with much joy. It's a worthy realization of the score.

I wasn't quite as taken by Ms. Alsop's interpretation of the coupling, though, Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, written in 1936. The composer had by that time been experimenting with "arch" forms, mirrorlike sequences of ideas building in one direction to an arch and then reversing in the second half. While she keeps the shape intact, Ms. Alsop's actual rendition of the piece seems just a tad wanting in atmosphere, impetus, and drive. Incidentally, if you don't actually know the music yet it sounds vaguely familiar to you, it may be because Stanley Kubrick used it in The Shining, sort of eerie music for an eerie film.

Naxos recorded the performances at Meyerhoff Hall, Baltimore, in 2009-2010. In the tradition of so many Naxos recordings, the sound is slightly warm and soft. There is a nice room resonance that lends verisimilitude to the listening experience, so one does feel involved with the actual event. Reasonably good dynamics and frequency range help, too. Midrange clarity is adequate for the occasion, as is a strong mid bass and a moderately good sense of orchestral depth.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa