Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (SACD review)

Also, Kodaly: Concerto for Orchestra. Jakub Hrusa, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. Pentatone PTC 5186 626.

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.

Jakub Hrusa
I like the way Hrusa opens the concerto; it's appropriately mysterious, even eerie. Then he takes an almost lyrical approach to the big melodies, which is pleasantly refreshing if slightly unexpected. Tempos throughout are leisurely, relaxed, though not sluggish. I was hoping for more bite, but it never materialized. There is an agreeably sedate playfulness about Hrusa's "Pairs" that seems in tune with the occasion. Next, Hrusa's third-movement elegy is in part haunting and in part dragging. It's actually a hard act to pull off, so I'd give him credit for trying. I liked Hrusa's treatment of the fourth movement; perhaps it's the conductor's own love of folk music that carries the day. The orchestra, too, responds splendidly to the light rhythms. In the finale, Hrusa lets go a bit more, even if he's still somewhat tame compared to some other conductors.

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:

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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 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa