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.

JJP

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


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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