Bartok: Music for Strings

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Hungaroton
WORKS: Music for strings, percussion and celesta; Divertimento for strings; Hungarian Sketches for orchestra
PERFORMER: Hungarian National PO/Zoltán Kocsis


This latest instalment in Zoltán Kocsis’s highly acclaimed Bartók cycle features three works from the 1930s. Earliest of these are the Hungarian Sketches – a delightful sequence of piquant orchestrations of five short piano pieces composed before World War I. Unaccountably neglected both in the concert hall and on disc, it receives a thoroughly engaging performance.

As in Fritz Reiner’s classic RCA recording with the Chicago Symphony, Kocsis and his superb orchestra bring a strongly idiomatic shape and freshness to the folk-inflected melodies of each movement. Noteworthy is the way in which Kocsis manages to secure such a fluid use of rubato in the slower sections of ‘Evening in Transylvania’ and the grotesque ‘Slightly Tipsy’, yet succeeds in making any deviations in tempo seem entirely spontaneous.

The rest of the disc is made up of two masterpieces composed for Paul Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra. Hungaroton’s stunning SACD sound is heard to its best advantage in the Music for Strings performed here with a much larger number of players than is featured in the fine version from the late Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Linn.

Every strand in Bartók’s dense contrapuntal argument emerges here with amazing clarity, the antiphonal dialogue between the two string orchestras in the second movement, and the entry of the percussion at the climax to the first thrilling in their impact. The performance, too, is utterly compelling. Initially, I wondered whether Kocsis’s unexpectedly fast tempo both for the opening Andante tranquillo and the third movement Adagio was a miscalculation, which in lesser hands could so easily rob the music of its mystery and hypnotic effect. But such fears were quickly dispelled.

Kocsis’s steadfast refusal to let the tension sag coupled with an urgent sense of forward momentum actually serve to intensify the work’s feeling of anxiety, and these qualities are fully sustained in the faster second and fourth movements where the playing is characterised by tremendous rhythmic energy and exhilaration.

There’s a similar urgency underlining the interpretation of the Divertimento. Whereas some conductors tend to adopt a more relaxed and classically elegant approach, Kocsis emphasises its disturbing subtext, reminding us that it was composed at a time when Europe was on the brink of war and the composer was contemplating the heartbreaking prospect of having to leave Hungary.


Incisive and often aggressive articulation characterises Kocsis’s approach to many passages in the outer movements, whilst a desperate sense of foreboding, culminating in a series of nightmarish trills, casts a dark shadow over the central Molto Adagio. Altogether the outstanding quality of the performance and recording make this an entirely recommendable release. Erik Levi