Excellent Bartók from Alsop and Baltimore

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Here’s a way to tell if a performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is likely to be an outstanding one right from the start. Listen to the sound clip below: the trumpet trio from the first movement’s introduction. Is the volume a true pianissimo? Are the players perfectly together? Is the articulation truly legato, the timbre devoid of breathiness, the tempo chosen so as to permit a real melody to emerge in just two big arcs? Do the strings accompany with crystalline calm so that the ensuing, passionate string eruption comes as a genuine shock? If all of these criteria are met, as they are here, then we’re probably in good shape for the five movements to come. Marin Alsop leads a splendid performance of this oft-recorded work, full of character, whether in the jocular “games of pairs” second movement, the ensuing spooky elegy, or the finale that begins (seemingly) a touch reserved but takes off like a shot in the coda. It’s a memorable and wholly successful effort, excellently engineered to boot.

The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is cut very much from the same cloth. This is one of the very few performances since Reiner’s (Solti’s LSO recording is another) that even makes an attempt to approach Bartók’s very quick indicated timings—and he specifies the length of each section down to the second (not that he really expected anyone would pay attention). This approach pays the biggest dividends in the opening fugue, which really does unfold almost visually, like an arch. It’s quite wonderful. The only drawback to this performance stems from the fact that the Baltimore strings just aren’t quite in the same league as the very greatest ensembles—say Berlin, or Leningrad under Mravinsky (but then they don’t get lost), or the best crack chamber orchestras. If only they could have dug in a little harder in the second movement, or in those scary tremolos at the climax of the nocturnal third movement, we’d have had a recording for the ages. As it is then, this is very, very good, and wholly recommendable as a pairing of these two iconic works.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Concerto: Kubelik (DG), MSPC: Solti/LSO (Decca); Reiner (RCA)

    Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

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