An Almost Perfect Bartók Disc from Gardner

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

There’s a lot to love here. The coupling is an interesting one, particularly with the inclusion of the neglected but wonderful Four Orchestral Pieces. They are splendidly done, the first and third movements dreamy and impressionistic, the second and fourth biting and spiky. The Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin (or The Wonderful Tangerine, as one particularly maladroit record label in the States once put it) is also memorable—highly contrasted with plenty of seductive languor in the decoy games—with conductor Edward Gardner urging his players on to a really exciting concluding “chase” fugue.

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, while good, isn’t quite on the same level. The first two movements are just slightly under tempo. While I’m not a stickler for Bartók’s indicated timings, which are almost always on the quick side, the strings of the Melbourne Symphony haven’t quite the weight of tone required to sustain an opening fugue that lasts more than eight minutes. The second movement also lacks the ultimate in savagery, as does the folksy second subject in the finale, with those rousing, two-note, “Wham! Wham!” slams. Gardner should have just “let go” a bit more. The creepy third movement, though, has all of the expressionistic terror that Bartók surely intended.

Part of the problem may stem from engineering that, while warm and texturally clear, with excellent bass, offers perhaps too much of the room acoustic. It’s very smooth, even where the music shouldn’t be, with brass and percussion not cutting through the texture as sharply as they should. Still, because the coupling is so smart and the playing basically so good, this is an impressive release and I certainly wouldn’t regret having it in my collection. Edward Gardner remains a conductor to watch.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Music for SPC: Reiner/Chicago (RCA); Four Pieces: Boulez/NYPO (Sony)

    Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin; Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta; Four Orchestral Pieces

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