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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123, Sz.116 [38:00]
Rhapsody for Violin & Orchestra No. 1, BB 94b, Sz. 87 [15:32]
Part 2 of Rhapsody No. 1, Sz. 87, BB 94b: II. (Second Version) [10:21]
Rhapsody for Violin & Orchestra No. 2, BB 96b, Sz. 90 [10:29]
Dance Suite BB 86A [16:21]
James Ehnes (violin)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2016/17, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway

I’m a massive fan of Edward Gardner’s Bergen recordings, so I was all set fair to love this one; but in the event I found its main performance a little anodyne. There’s nothing actively wrong with this performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, but there isn’t anything particularly special about it either.

The problem isn’t with the orchestral playing, which is as excellent as we’ve come to expect from this stable, and you hear that in the way the first movement emerges from the primordial soup while still finding some energy in the torpor. Furthermore, the fourth movement contains surprisingly lovely string tone to offset the cheekiness of the winds and brass. It works very well, and I wish there’d been more of that interpretative contrast.

Elsewhere it’s all a little antiseptic, a bit too safe. The “Game of Pairs”, for example, lacks the requisite sense of mischief, and the third movement didn’t catch me up in the drama: instead I felt like I was watching it from afar, and not even the energy of the playing could get me swept up in the slightly flat finale. When you compare this with the Hungarians, particularly Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (or even Solti in Chicago), you see what’s missing: where Fischer shows sparkle and vigour, Gardner plays things rather too safe.

However, I defy anyone to listen to these performances of the Rhapsodies without a smile on their face. Bartók’s fantastically original combination of instruments works beautifully here, his use of the cimbalom giving a spark of colour that gives it something pretty special, all of which is captured beautifully by the Chandos engineers. James Ehnes sounds like he's having a whale of a time, especially in the faster sections, which are a riot, and the whole performance sounds like it’s only a couple of steps away from the café culture from which it originally sprang.

Likewise, the Dance Suite is characterised by an anarchic sense of fun, as though Bartók was playing with all the tools in the musical toy box and loving every effect. The opening has wonderful sense of grotesquerie to it, and Gardner directs the whole thing with energetic thrust which means you never forget this is dance music. His approach pays especially rich dividends in the cut-and-thrust of the third movement, where it helps that the orchestra glitter like quicksilver, and the thrust of the finale is very appealing. However, the contrast of the slower movements also judges the balance well, and sets the seal on a very strong performance.

So this disc is by no means a dead loss, and it’s definitely worth hearing for the Rhapsodies, but I can’t see many people buying it for the Concerto.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Roy Westbrook

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