Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

The Best of Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
6 Romanian Folkdances, Sz 56 (1915) Balasz Szokolay, piano
Violin Concerto 2, Sz112, 2nd mov. Gyorgy Pauk, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra - Antoni Wit
Allegro barbaro, Sz49, Balasz Szokolay, piano
Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz 114, mov III, Gyorgy Pauk
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116, movs IV/V; BRT PO Brussels/Alexander Rahbari
Piano Concerto No. 3 Sz 119, mov II, Jeno Jando, Budapest SO/Andras Ligeti
Contrasts, Sz 111, mov. I, Pauk/Berkes/Jando
Viola Concerto (revised) Sz 120, movs II-III; Hong-Mei Xiao, Budapest PO/Janos Kovacs
44 Duos for Two Violins, Sz 98 Book IV/I; Pauk/Sawa
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta Sz 106, mov. IV; BRT PO Brussels/Alexander Rahbari
Various locations
Naxos 8.556693 [74.00]
Crotchet    Amazon UK    Amazon US

No-one really had quite had the nerve to bring out a Bartok's Greatest Hits, but Naxos have tried in their own 'Best Of' series. And they have a point. The shock of the old can still knock Classic FM listeners (or even the milder Brian Kay ones) off their musically feather-weighted nests.

This is the ideal CD to introduce to those who still find Bartok challenging. It's well-programmed from what happens to be one of Naxos's treasures, their Bartók discography (so good that one disc, containing the two Rhapsodies and early Piano Quintet isn't represented). The ubiquitous 6 Romanian Folkdances of 1915, played by Balasz Szokolay, on the piano, may not contain harmonically those astonishing high keening notes that wail like the hungry ghosts of the dead in the violin version. Otherwise, the now Naxos-neglected Szokolay plays marvellously. Indeed it was these performances that tinged Brian Hunt's March 2001 BBC Music Magazine article on Naxos, which was otherwise very positive. He asserts that Naxos have abandoned several outstanding artists, for no good reason other than they can't think of repertoire for them. Szokolay clashes with Jando. And Jando has won. Hunt's right, and to underline insult, Szokolay is back with a spirited Allegro barbaro. In between, the more exposed Gyorgy Pauk plays the first of several items, here the Violin Concerto No. 2, 2nd movement. He was regarded as having not quite lived up to expectations, perhaps in the finale. There's no trace of that here.

After the second Szokolay, Pauk returns with the middle of the haunting Sonata for Solo Violin, commissioned by Menuhin in 1944. He plays poised on the edge of a vanished world, and sounds as if he might disappear into it. It's a very generous acoustic so he's perhaps saved by wandering through the aural image. The BRT PO Brussels/Alexander Rahbari band make the first of two spirited interjections, here with the last two movements of the Concerto for Orchestra, given with great raspberry-blowing humour when the Shostakovich 7th Symphony cavalry arrives. The sound, too, is fine. As is, notably, that in the Jando-handed Piano Concerto No. 3, whose improved Naxos recording reviewers greeted with relief when it emerged with the two other piano concertos in 1994. BBC Music Magazine went as far as to say its only rival was the Anda, in worse sound, and Jando's was now the best version. Well, Schiff came along, and Anda is pretty unbeatable but it's still one of the best three recordings. If you could programme the concertos in reverse order, your proverbial maiden aunt/computer nephew mightn't get so frightened.

The first movement of Contrasts, with Pauk/Berkes/Jando, again comes from a highly-praised disc containing the two violin sonatas. This has terrific punch, the raucous nagging of the recruiting song. Next the Viola Concerto (revised version) with movements II-III; Hong-Mei Xiao, a name new to me, with the Budapest PO under Janos Kovacs played with zest and perhaps occasional roughness. A pity they couldn't have included the whole concerto, which might have helped sales. Some astonishing wailing sounds emanating from the viola show how revised this was from the original copek-plain Tibor Serly rendition. The excerpt from the 44 Duos for Two Violins, Book IV/I with the Pauk/Sawa team comes from the opposite end of the string spectrum, though more often the viola is the ruminant rustic. This track is a slow colliding, remarkably rich entwinement of staves, that then quickens and thickens. The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta finale returns us to the zesty BRT PO Brussels/Alexander Rahbari team. Altogether a painless 74 minutes.

Simon Jenner

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