Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra; Four Orchestral Pieces

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Concerto for Orchestra; Four Orchestral Pieces
PERFORMER: Chicago SO/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 437 826-2 DDD
These discs contain two of the peaks of Bartók’s output, and two of the foothills that lead up to and away from them. The Four Orchestral Pieces, Op. 12, written when Bartók was 31, are a set of exuberantly lush tone poems, with startlingly original passages set cheek-by-jowl with Debussyan harmonies. The Chicago SO brings a warm, refulgent sound to these pieces, but as one would expect with Boulez, the textures stay wonderfully clear. The famous Chicago brass shine brilliantly in the Concerto for Orchestra, the last of Bartók’s indisputably great works, but they don’t dominate. Once again the sound has a nice rounded quality, less edgy than Boulez’s earlier recording with the New York Philharmonic.

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The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a more private piece than the Concerto, and is written in a more astringent idiom. It has its brilliant moments, but it’s no good trying to turn it into a showpiece for strings (as James Levine does in his version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is altogether too beefy and extrovert). Ozawa’s performance with the Berlin Philharmonic conjures up just the sense of inner intensity that the piece needs. It was recorded live in a hall with a very generous acoustic, which suits the music well – especially the gravely beautiful opening fugue, which can otherwise sound dry. It’s paired with a sensitive, well-paced performance of the unfinished Viola Concerto. Ivan Hewett