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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945) Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116 (1943) [38:21]
Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Sz. 106 (1936) [31:32]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelik (Concerto), Seiji Ozawa (Music)
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, 1973 (Concerto) and 1976 (Music) PENTATONE SACD PTC5186247 [69:53]
There has been almost a cult following around Rafael Kubelik’s Boston Symphony account of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a classic performance that some find superior even to the legendary one by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on RCA. After all, the work was commissioned and received its premiere by the Boston orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky. I may have heard this performance in the past, but was always an aficionado of the Reiner recording. With this new remastering, I have had the opportunity to make direct comparisons not only with Reiner, but also with Antal Dorati and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (both Philips). I continue to hold both of those recordings in high esteem.
While there is much to recommend in all four of these accounts of the Concerto for Orchestra, I have gained a greater respect for Dorati’s and a somewhat lesser appreciation of Reiner’s. I now find Reiner’s, although amazing as a recording from 1955, rather monolithic and cool. Dorati, extremely well recorded, finds more humour and lyricism in the music, but does not shortchange the power of the work. However, he overdoes the humour in the middle section of the fourth movement—the passage ridiculing Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony—with clarinet and trombone slides just this side of vulgar. Also, his use of rubato at the beginning of the finale, where he gradually increases the main tempo, and in the coda, can seem excessive. Overall, though, with spectacular playing by the Concertgebouw Orchestra and terrific sound, Dorati’s is one to be reckoned with.
Rafael Kubelik also finds the lyrical side of the work and demonstrates flexibility in the woodwind and string parts. With a very clear recording, one can appreciate subsidiary detail not so apparent elsewhere. The Boston Symphony’s performance matches that of their Chicago and Amsterdam counterparts in technical excellence. I find Kubelik disappointing, though, in the brassy climaxes where Reiner, for example, knocks you off your feet. There is also a relative lack of wit in the second movement, which seems too serious and sluggish, and a shortchanging of the fourth movement’s humour. Kubelik excels in the third movement, as do the others, even if Reiner’s is a bit too drawn out and fierce. The one recording that has all of the virtues of these and none of the shortcomings is the most recent, Iván Fischer’s with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. He takes a headlong approach to the fast movements, much as Reiner did, but also finds time to relax and bring out the humour without overdoing it. It is interesting that the timing for the second movement is close to Reiner’s (5:57 vs. 6:03), where Dorati and Kubelik add 30 seconds. It should not make that much difference and, indeed, Dorati is wittier than Kubelik, but it does. Fischer is provided with outstanding recorded sound, with due attention paid to both ends of the spectrum, and the Budapest orchestra contributes warmth and Hungarian flavour aplenty. If I had to choose just one, it would be his, though the others all have real value and should not be overlooked.
Moving to the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Reiner, coupled on the same disc with his Concerto for Orchestra, reigns supreme in my opinion. Although recorded only three years after the concerto, the advance in the sound is appreciable. He sets the perfect tempo for each of the movements and the Chicago Symphony strings and percussion play spectacularly. The first movement is marked Andante tranquillo and his timing of 7:05 is spot on, unlike Ozawa who drags it out at 8:51, more of an adagio. Pierre Boulez, who also recorded the work with the Chicago Symphony for DG, is somewhat better at 7:55, but overall makes heavy weather of the whole work and leaves a a rather dour impression. Ozawa’s performance, after that overly slow first movement, is fine with clear and present sound, but cannot compare with either Reiner or Zoltán Kocsis (Hungaroton) for idiomatic interpretation. I listened to the more recent Kocsis via a streaming service and found it very exciting. His timing of 27:12 and Reiner’s of 27:51 are obviously close, while Ozawa takes over 31 minutes and Boulez 30:24. If I continue to prefer Reiner over Kocsis, it is because he finds more warmth in the score in some of the string passages, for example, the return of the first movement theme before the last movement’s coda, and his recording is a bit tamer than the more reverberative sound of the Kocsis account.
In all, I was a little disappointed in the Kubelik performance because I had read such rave reviews of it. Perhaps my expectations were just too high. It is certainly beautifully played and recorded. Those listeners for whom it is gospel should be happy with this latest reincarnation, especially if you have super audio equipment. I listened to it in two channels only. The Ozawa has never received the same amount of acclaim. It is a good, middling account, but no match for Reiner or Kocsis.