Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (SACD review)

Also, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Rafael Kubelik; Seiji Ozawa; Boston Symphony Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 247.

The Seventies were interesting times in the classical music world. It was still the age of analogue, and we hadn't yet heard the arguments over whether analogue or digital sounded better. Some of the finest music and best sound were coming from EMI's recordings with the London Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic. And, then, there was Quadraphonic. Of course, for most of us, Quad came and went quickly, mostly with a few LP's from RCA that didn't sound particularly good in straight two-channel stereo. What most of us didn't know back then was that DG and Philips also dabbled in Quad recording but just never released much (or anything) in the format. And that's where Pentatone comes in. They are seeking out and remastering albums originally done in Quad and reproducing them in hybrid SACD (two-channel and multichannel, with another two-channel that one can play on a regular CD player). The present Bartok disc from Pentatone (1973 and 1976 DG recordings) is just such an album, sounding a lot better than it might have from a scratchy LP over forty years ago.

The first thing on the program is the Concerto for Orchestra by Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartok (1881-1945), performed in a 1973 DG recording by the Czech conductor and composer Rafael Kubelik and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bartok wrote the piece at the end of his career, and it has since become one of his most-popular and most-accessible compositions. Bartok premiered the work in 1944 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony, so presumably the orchestra was well up on performing it. However, the title is something of a misnomer because the music's form doesn't resemble a traditional concerto at all. Bartok's Concerto is in five movements instead of three, and it involves no solo instruments. Bartok said he gave it the title "concerto" because of the way the score treats each section of instruments in "a soloistic and virtuosic way." Fair enough.

Rafael Kubelik
Maestro Kubelik's manner with Bartok is a tad gentler than some listeners may be accustomed to. He doesn't project as clean and precise an image as, say, Reiner (RCA) or as powerful and driving a force as Solti (Decca, in either of his stereo recordings). As Bartok was ill at the time he wrote the music, perhaps Kubelik's interpretation of it is a nod toward that affliction that would shortly end the composer's life. Nevertheless, under Kubelik the score is vigorous enough, sorrowful enough, introspective enough, and emotionally assertive enough to provide a more-than-moving testament to Bartok's genius, with the Boston players fully behind it.

The coupling on the disc is Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, which the composer wrote in 1936 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the chamber orchestra Basler Kammerorchester. Audiences today may know the music best for its inclusion in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining, as well as Spike Jonze's 1999 film Being John Malkovich. The score is 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. The composer had also by 1936 been experimenting with European folk melodies and "arch" forms (mirrorlike sequences of ideas building in one direction to an arch and then reversing in the second half). We hear it all in Music for Strings, this time in a 1976 recording with Seiji Ozawa leading the Boston Symphony.

Maestro Ozawa takes a more literal view of the music than some other conductors. (I'm still rather fond of Ormandy's EMI account, oddly, perhaps, given Ormandy's own penchant for taking music at face value.) I don't hear in Ozawa quite the dramatic stress or underlying sense of suspense, tension and release that I do with Ormandy (or Solti). However, Ozawa does a fairly good job evoking Bartok's ethereal atmosphere (that "unreal sound world" that conductor Ferenc Fricsay once called it). We'll just have to leave the ultimate mystery of the piece for other conductors to convey.

Pentatone include a matching slipcover with the disc as well as a highly informative booklet insert.

Producers Klaus Behrens, Wolf-Dieter Karwatky, and Hans Weber and engineer Heinz Wildhagen recorded the Concerto in Quadraphonic at Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts in 1973. Producer Rainer Brock and engineer Klaus Hiemann recorded the Music for Strings in Quadraphonic at Symphony Hall in 1976. Polyhymnia International B.V. remastered the album for SACD hybrid stereo/multichannel playback in 2017. I listened in the SACD two-channel stereo mode.

The newly remastered sound in the Concerto is both warm and full, with excellent depth of image and wide dynamics. The upper midrange sounds at times a bit screechy, but that's part of the music's charm. The strings are also a tad compartmentalized, so the overall sonic picture one gets is not entirely realistic. Still, it's more than satisfying. The Music for Strings sounds a little better balanced, with no part of the frequency response shouting at us, and it, too, has a good depth of field and plenty of dynamic range.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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