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.
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: