Bela Bartok (1881 ' 1945): Concerto for Orchestra (1943); Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). Performed by the BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels (Belgium), directed by Alexander Rahbari.
Recorded in June 1990 at the Concert Hall of the Belgian Radio and Television in Brussels.
Naxos NX 8.550261. Total time: 74'11'.
I was first introduced to the music of Bela Bartok some 30 years ago by a friend from the Salvation Army who played me an LP of his (together with Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring'). To be honest, I was not impressed. I remembered that Bartok was a researcher of South-East European folk music, but over the years the only pieces I heard by him were his Romanian Folk Dances and some excerpts from his 'For Children', both recorded as part of the Naxos series 'Romantic Piano Favourites'. It was only recently that I came across this Naxos recording of the 'Concerto for Orchestra' and the 'Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta' and decided to give them a try.
Obviously, Bartok's work as a composer went way beyond the collecting of folk music, and he denied using any of his collected material in his orchestral works. A fellow composer classified Bartok, together with Stravinsky and Schoenberg, as one of the great representatives of modernity, and although the pieces on this CD are not atonal, they require considerable effort when listening. I found the Naxos notes by Keith Anderson to be rather unrewarding and looked up these pieces in a musical lexicon for more information.
The Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned by Sergej Koussevitsky, whose broadcast performance of the piece is still available as part of the Naxos Historical Broadcast series. It seems that Bartok conceived the piece as approaching a symphony, but using the woodwind section of the orchestra in particular in concerto manner. There are some jazzy rhythms (particularly in the middle of the Presto finale), some very serious passages (the Elegia) and two rather delightful scherzo-style movements using bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flute and trumpets, all leading up to the very lively finale.
The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was composed for the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Basle Chamber Orchestra who also gave the work its first performance in 1937. The piece is described in my lexicon as lasting about 25 minutes, but Alexander Rahbari's interpretation goes on over 33 minutes, partially because of his extremely slow approach to the first movement (Andante tranquillo). The whole is constructed with mathematical precision and is concerned with contrasting sound effects which it would take too long to describe here. Personally I found the close of the whole work (the last movement is an 'Allegro molto') to be something of an anti-climax.
Alexander Rahbari and his Belgian orchestra give a truly fine performance, and there is plenty of detail to be heard here, assuming that one takes the trouble to listen over and over. When I first bought the disc, I played it on my normal stereo system and was rather disappointed at the sound. But with Naxos CDs it is good to persevere, which means experimenting with hifi equipment to get the best result. In this case, I found listening at a normally unhealthily loud volume (the volume control was at the '12 o'clock' position) over Philips SBC-HP1000 headphones attached to a Benchmark DAC-1 D/A converter (itself attached with a coaxial cable to a Sony ES CD-player) yielded a remarkable improvement, possibly because the Philips headphones separate the left and right stereo channels more clearly than my open Sennheisers do while at the same time providing much more concentrated sound than loudspeakers (it would be anti-social in the extreme to play the music that loud over speakers, my neighbours would be sure to protest!). At any rate, I was able in this way to enjoy a real feast of sound, with the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta yielding some really fascinating rhythms and sounds.
Note from 9th June 2007: In the time since writing the above I have acquired two further recordings of this repertoire, both by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (one an RCA re-release from the fifties under the baton of Fritz Reiner Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Hungarian Sketches, the other a superb 1989 Deutsche Grammophon recording directed by James Levine. Both of these show up clearly both how idiosyncratic Rahbari's performance is and how difficult the Naxos sound is. I listened to all three recordings under exactly the same conditions, and whereas both Reiner and Levine gave me a really thrilling experience in front of the speakers, it seemed with Rahbari like I was listening from the other end of the hall, sometimes in fact as though I was at the other end of a tunnel. It was only when listening at fairly loud volume through a headphone amp that Rahbari began to sound convincing. But then it became clear that his use of brass and of slow tempi were almost re-interpreting Bartok. The Naxos-Rahbari is a good second or third issue to have, but if you are coming to this for the first time, go for the Reiner or the Levine!