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Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No. 3: (1: Allegretto: [6.57]; 2: Marcia funebre; Adagio religioso: [10.14]; 3: Scherzo; Allegro vivace: [6.53]) [24.04]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Symphony No. 1 Titan (1: Langsam, schleppend. Im Anfang sehr gemachlich: [15.39]; 2: Kraftig: [7.07]; 3: Feierlich und gemessen: [11.17]; 4: Sturmisch bewegt: [20.08]) [54.11]
Annie Fischer (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Georg Solti
Mono: Digitally Remastered. Made in Germany
Recorded live at the Salzburg Festival, 16 August 1964
ORFEO C628 041 B [78:58]

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Georg Solti became associated with the music of Bela Bartók and Gustav Mahler through his Decca studio recordings. However his Salzburg Festival concert on 16 August 1964, recorded live, displayed little instinct or rapport with these composers; the Vienna Philharmonic likewise.

Judging by the orchestra’s perfumed, plush and padded playing style it sounded as if they have never played Bartók before in their lives - let alone his Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945). Surprisingly, it was also as if Solti had never conducted Bartók in his life. Whilst Annie Fischer had a mutual understanding of the composer’s metallic and acidic score, both conductor and orchestra seemed on alien ground barely accompanying her and sounding more like twee Viennese cafe muzac. The important woodwind interjections that dialogue with the pianist in the Allegretto lacked point and bite. They come across as soggy and opaque. Fischer played with a dissonant and percussive attack but Solti and the VPO seemed far too soft-core like indistinct wallpaper totally out of sync and sympathy with Bartók’s spooky and spiky soundworld.

In the adagio religioso Fischer adopted an appropriately fragmented manner making the notes stark and strange and initiating a sensation of fragile vulnerability and isolated detachment. Again the orchestral accompaniment was in completely the wrong style with the strings and woodwind sounding far too tutti-frutti; just think of icing sugar dissolved in molasses.

Fischer played the Scherzo; Allegro vivace with a combination of bravura and delicate muscularity. She is only let down by Solti’s heavy-handed and crudely phrased conducting. The important interjections for timpani and bass drum were pathetically effete and apologetically tasteful; the result: zero impact. It was clear from the playing that Bartók’s music was alien to the ears of the VPO and foreign to their blood.

If you want to hear Annie Fischer with a superior Bartók conductor and an orchestra more familiar with the composer’s style I suggest you listen to her with Ferenc Fricsay and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, also on the same label (Orfeo: C 200 891 B). That version is coupled with an outstandingly poignant performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony ‘Pathetique’ (1893).

Solti’s conducting of the first movement (Langsam , schleppend. Im Anfang sehr gemachlich) of Mahler’s First Symphony was ponderous and bland from beginning to end and never really ignited. Even in 1964 the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra clearly had little rapport with the authentic ‘Mahler’ sound and played in a rather rugged and brash manner with the woodwind sounding far too sweet. Solti showed absolutely no understanding for the lilting lumpen shambling dance rhythms of the second movement playing it far too strait-laced. Again the playing of the VPO was absolutely alien to the cynical sinister sarcasm of Mahler’s mysterious music.

By far the most successful was the third ‘huntsman's funeral’ movement, Feierlich und gemessen, with Solti securing the apt kitsch-schmaltz ‘Jewishness’ from the 'Frère Jacques' snivelling solo double bass and the carnivalesque campness of the brass band. Ironically, this movement is meant to be played ‘badly’ in a kind of rough and rugged manner sounding deliberately out-of-tune. So in fact the VPO did it very well – that is – very badly – by default. This movement was by far the highlight of the performance.

The concluding last movement Sturmisch bewegt lacked the stark contrasts required between storm and serenity. All was reduced to Solti’s customary ‘hell for leather’ lunatic antics of loudness for loudness sake with the symphony ending in a cacophony of crude noise signifying nothing. Solti was never a great Bartók or Mahler conductor - nor even a mediocre one.

This mid-price Orfeo CD can only be recommended for the incisive and stylish playing of Annie Fischer. The rest is disappointingly dreary and unmusical. The live mono recording is warm and spacious with plenty of bloom and with minimal coughing throughout.

Alex Russell

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