The last time I heard a recording by Czech conductor Jakub Hrusa, he was doing Dvorak tone poems. I said at the time that I thought he was a little conservative for my taste. This time out, he is doing two concertos for orchestra by the Hungarian composers Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, both pieces requiring a red-blooded approach. While Maestro Hrusa still seems to favor a fairly cautious reading of the scores, his interpretations are undoubtedly appealing in their own way.
Bela Bartok (1881-1945) wrote his five-movement Concerto for Orchestra in 1943, during the height of the Second World War. The composer was near the end of his career, and the work has since become one of his most-popular and most-accessible compositions, so he went out in style. However, the title of the piece is something of a misnomer because the music's form doesn't really resemble a traditional concerto. Bartok's Concerto is in five movements instead of the conventional three, and it involves no solo instruments. He said he called it a "concerto" because of the way the score treats each section of instruments in "a soloistic and virtuosic way." Fair enough.
Bartok's concerto begins with some soft, light "night music," giving way to more robust themes as things move along. The second movement, titled "Game of Pairs," has a different pair of instruments playing together in five sections. The middle movement is a slow elegy, also of the "night music" variety, a sorrowful lament. The fourth movement is an Allegretto, a smoothly flowing affair, which includes much folk music as well as a reference to Lehar's Merry Widow (although the composer claimed never to have heard the operetta, only Shostakovich's play on it). The work concludes with another big movement, labeled Finale - Pisante (heavy or ponderous), which most conductors nevertheless take at a moderately quick, high-spirited pace.
I know that a lot of readers would prefer that I not compare recordings to one another at all, that I should judge each new disc on its own merits alone. But I've never been able to do that. Other, favored recordings always come to mind as I'm listening to something new. So, for me the question arises, Is Hrusa's performance (and Pentatone's sound) any better or worse than my old standbys in the Bartok: Fritz Reiner's interpretation (RCA or JVC remasters) or either of Georg Solti's renditions (Decca)? I'd say Hrusa's reading is smoother, softer, gentler than either of my comparisons. Reiner is more acute, more incisive, and Solti is bolder and more brusque. I suppose it's just a matter of how you like your Bartok; personally, I still prefer the older recordings.
Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967), a friend, contemporary, and fellow countryman of Bartok, wrote his own Concerto for Orchestra in 1939-40, a few years earlier than Bartok's concerto. Kodaly's work has never attained the level of popularity that Bartok's has, and it is much shorter, a single movement divided into five brief segments. That said, it does have its charms. As Jorg Peter Urbach writes in a booklet note, it's "a captivating combination of Baroque 'architecture' and Hungarian folk music." Hrusa gives it his full attention, and like his realization of the fourth movement of the Bartok, the performance displays a brisk bounce and sensitivity.
Producer Job Maarse and engineers Jean-Marie Geijsen and Erdo Groot recorded the concertos at Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin in June 2017. They produced it for playback via hybrid SACD, so one can play it in multichannel or two-channel SACD on an SACD player or in two-channel stereo on a regular CD player. As usual, I listened in two-channel SACD, using a Sony SACD player.
The sound is typical of Pentatone in that it's warm and luxuriant, with a nice sense of ambient bloom that doesn't overshadow all of the music's detail. Orchestral perspective and depth of field are reasonably good, as are the dynamic range and frequency response. In other words, the sound may not be entirely what audiophiles expect, but it is acceptably realistic and easy on the ear.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: