Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki
BIS BIS-2378 (CD/SACD) 69:09 mins
Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra could have brought the exiled Hungarian composer a new lease of life in the US. Commissioned by Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it was a rip-roaring success upon its premiere in 1944. But less than a year later, the composer was dead, after a long struggle with leukaemia.
The Concerto has shone bright ever since, a magnificent showpiece with a dizzying range of emotional states, from dread and sorrow to graphically sardonic humour and, not least, elemental verve aplenty. The earlier Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is its perfect companion piece, inventive at every twist, the unmatchably spooky timpani glissando effects ready to startle you afresh even if you know to expect them.
Susanna Mälkki and her Helsinki Philharmonic offer performances that are at once satisfying, dazzling and individual. There’s a poise, indeed an elegance, to the basic good posture of these interpretations, held on a taut rein, with shifts of energy splendidly controlled and unshakable technical excellence worn nonchalantly. The conversational elements, the speech-like phrases, the variety of textures – from dug-deep string tone to whispered clarity – jump off the page as if newly minted. The playing itself is superb, often virtuosic, while Mälkki’s concept combines the composer’s imagination at both his brightest and darkest with an almost Mozartian sense of structural balance. Recorded sound is superb, clear yet not anodyne, with palpably antiphonal violin sections.