Voracious Hungarian Music
Reviewed in the United States on 26 August 2018
For listeners new to Bartok, his music can be a tough nut to crack, and yet there is much of his music that is broadly approachable if you can spend some time with his musical language. The first disc on this 2-CD set of Bela Bartok’s Orchestral Masterpieces covers Bartok’s more accessible orchestral compositions, those which are generally more consonant, highly rhythmic, occasionally motivically satisfying, and sometimes, greatly influenced by easily-hummable Hungarian folk music and toe-tapping folk dances. The second disc features crunchier harmonic language in comparison, but it also displays Bartok’s primitivistic settings of rhythms, a high sense of drama, unusual neoclassical settings, and altogether includes some of the most important orchestral compositions represented in 20th Century music history. Those familiar with Bartok’s music will get much to appreciate from the performances on this 2-CD set, but this compilation is also an excellent starting place for those new to Bartok as well, although, I will admit, his music is not for everyone, so check the audio samples.
There is no dearth of Hungarian conductors who have dominated the standard performances and recordings of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok’s orchestral compositions: 1. The older sounding
Fricsay is well respected, including some live performances
, but I am not sure if any of those have received a remastering. 2. Antal Dorati's recording gets the benefit of the vivid
Living Presence sound, but his orchestras have been bettered by pithier and more virtuosic ensembles. 3. Fritz Reiner, on the audiophilic
Living Stereo, gives great readings of three Bartok works also with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 4. Sir George Solti competes with himself in two sets of Bartok's orchestral music: 1. The older London SO stereo recording from the 60’s (a complete set released on
Eloquence and an earlier release found on
Legends) and 2. This digitally-captured recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the 80’s and 90’s, also released on the Decca label. Soundwise, this later Chicago recording is captured naturally from an audience perspective in Orchestra Hall, and while there are a few moments where I could use a more present harp, the ensemble is heard well with general warmth and dramatic bite. The earlier London recording is recorded a bit more close up, less natural than the Chicago, and a bit “in your face”. My preference is the Chicago sound with its cohesive and virtuous brass, but I will admit the up-close London sound has an immediacy that is infectious.
As to the performances, Solti doesn’t diverge too much from the older recording to this one. The first disc of the Concerto for Orchestra, Dance Suite, Hungarian Sketches, and Romanian Folk Dances and the second disc of Bartok's famous Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste, the Divertimento for strings, and the Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin features the best of Solti’s drive and drama, along with the crackerjack Chicago brass and ensemble sound from that era, and are perhaps not bettered on record for sheer thrills and virtuosity. And while all of this is masterfully performed by Chicago, Solti’s earlier London recordings of the Mandarin and Dance Suite may slightly edge out Chicago for dramatic pulse and character. As a set, though, I prefer this 2-CD set from Chicago for its natural sound and excellent performances.
In any case, this Solti/Chicago Bartok 2-CD set is an easy one-place stop for these essential works, represented well sonically for voraciously-exciting and crisply-defined musical performances. In addition, compare to the more cerebral
Boulez, who has some of the lesser-known orchestral works in addition to the 7 essentials included here, and check out Solti’s recordings of
set of concertos and choral
as well. This 2-CD set, however, is highly recommended!
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