For me at least, the name of Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras (1925-2010) doesn't usually conjure up thoughts of Hungarian music (Czech, maybe, but not Hungarian), yet in 2004 this album of Mackerras conducting Hungarian composers Bartok and Kodaly appears to have been such a hit with the public that Linn Records decided to rerelease it in 2015. It is understandable why they did so: The album is quite appealing for both its performances and its sound.
Mackerras begins the program with Dances of Galanta by Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967), which the composer wrote in 1933 for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society. He based the piece on the folk music of a small town called Galanta, where he had lived for a few years. Maestro Mackerras brings out the gypsy inflections in lively enough fashion, yet he adds a note of grace to the proceedings as well. These are not just helter-skelter interpretations by a conductor trying to impress upon his listeners the bustle and excitement of the music; Mackerras genuinely sees this material as having serious worth, and he provides a finely accentuated, fluidly rhythmic rendering of the dances.
Next up is the centerpiece of the album, the Music for strings, percussion and celeste by Bela Bartok (1881-1945), which he wrote in 1936 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the chamber orchestra Basler Kammerorchester. It has since become one of the composers most well-known pieces of music. It is, of course, somewhat odd and eerie, with several of my favorite recordings of it coming from fairly different approaches: Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI) is most eloquent; Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (Decca) is more brazen and robust; and Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA) is probably the best all-around. But then we have Mackerras, who adds a greater element of lyricism to the mix.
Mackerras's way with the music is very atmospheric, very imaginative, and poetic, too. The string arrangement is such that the piece takes on an added quality of three-dimensionality, which sounds quite effective here in Linn's recording, even if the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is smaller than Bartok probably envisioned. Mackerras maintains the rhythmic thrust of the piece without sacrificing any balance or poise. Although he never rushes things, the tempos appear well judged, with none of the movements too frenetic or too slack.
|Sir Charles Mackerras|
Additionally, I'd like to add a shout-out to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. They seem to me as good as any chamber orchestra in the world, with a crisp attack, a warm articulation, and a rich overall tone. They sound at least as refined as the English Chamber Orchestra, and that's high praise, indeed.
Producer Tim Oldham and engineers Philip Hobbs and Calum Malcolm recorded the music at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, UK in February and March 2004, Linn Records issuing it the same year. Linn rereleased the disc in 2015 under their "Echo" label. The sound is spacious without being hollow or cavernous, full and natural without being bright or dull. It sounds perfectly natural and appropriately dimensional, pretty much the live sound of a chamber orchestra I chanced to hear the night before I listened to this disc. The midrange is not super-analytical but provides a good deal of inner detail; the frequency extremes are about where they should be, with good extension, especially in the highs; and the dynamics are wide, strong, and solid. This is impressively lifelike sound, the kind we have come to expect from Linn.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: