Bartok: Music for strings, percussion and celeste (CD review)

Also, Divertimento for String Orchestra; Kodaly: Dances of Galanta. Sir Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Linn Records Echo BKD 234.

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
Mackerras closes the show with Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra, written in 1939 on commission from the founder of the Basler Kammerorchester. The conductor continues here his policy of musical refinement, keeping its diverse mood swings fully compatible with one another. The transitions are so smooth, we no longer have any fear that the three movements are going to come from entirely different places. Mackerras apparently sees the piece as an organic whole and treats it as such. All the thrills and passion are here, along with the anguish and compassion.

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:

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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