ALBUM TITLE: Bartók
WORKS: Concerto for Orchestra; The Wooden Prince Suite
PERFORMER: SWR SO, Baden-Baden & Freiburg/Michael Gielen
CATALOGUE NO: CD 93.184
An intriguing coupling, Bartók’s early flirtation with Debussyian colouring in the Wooden Prince Suite rubbing shoulders with the mature orchestral masterpiece of his exile years in America. A seasoned conductor of music by the Second Viennese School, Michael Gielen is particularly good at exploiting the grotesque and proto-expressionist elements of the Wooden Prince, but his interpretation lacks an element of atmosphere when it comes to the opening and closing sections where Bartók conjures up the mysterious sounds of the forest.
In the Concerto for Orchestra, Gielen’s reluctance to exploit superficial virtuosity at the expense of musical substance is wholly admirable. The dark resonances that lie beneath the surface of the musical argument are emphasised not only in a menacing account of the Introduction and at the tortured climax to the ‘Elegia’, but also in the more deliberate and heavy tread of the Finale, Bartók’s marking of Pesante being observed to the letter. At the same time, the ‘Giuoco delle Coppie’ sounds somewhat po-faced and leaden in articulation, and there could be a greater degree of nostalgia in the outer sections of the ‘Intermezzo interrotto’.
The SWR Symphony Orchestra offer supple and responsive playing without the razor-sharp brilliance of ensemble that one gets particularly from leading American orchestras: near the opening of the Concerto, for instance, the three trumpets don’t always function as a unanimous entity. Gielen’s Concerto for Orchestra is certainly worth hearing, but it doesn’t offer anything like the warmth of Iván Fischer (Philips), the unbridled brilliance of Eschenbach (Ondine) or the passionately driven intensity of Fritz Reiner (RCA), the latter still the most complete performance on disc. Erik Levi