Bartok – Suite No. 1 & Two Pieces

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: Hungaroton
WORKS: Suite No. 1 for orchestra, Op. 3; Two Pictures, Op. 10; Dances of Transylvania; Hungarian Peasant Songs for orchestra
PERFORMER: Hungarian National PO/Zoltán Kocsis
CATALOGUE NO: HSACD 32505 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Zoltán Kocsis has referred to his ongoing Bartók orchestral series as resembling a critical edition in CD format. He has a point, not least regarding the gorgeously idiomatic contribution of this fine Hungarian orchestra. This release amounts to a survey of the young Bartók’s evolution from fluent wunderkind to master-composer.

The Suite No. 1 is a sizeable musical calling-card from a 24-year-old prodigy wanting to make his mark on the international scene (the work was premiered, in truncated form, by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1905): imagine the early Richard Strauss of Aus Italien crossed with Otto Nicolai. Meanwhile there are fingerprints of the mature Bartók also – the sinuous Magyar-like theme of the second of the five movements, for instance.

Impressive though all this is, it’s put in perspective by the Two Pictures of 1910, where the influence of Debussy enriches an idiom of startling power and depth: the voice of the future composer of Bluebeard’s Castle is unmistakable. Both in the smouldering languor of the first movement, ‘In Full Flower’, and in the driving folk-like rhythms of ‘Village Dance’, Kocsis and his orchestra excel.

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The two other works are 1930s orchestrations of earlier piano music, respectively the Sonatina of 1915, and some of the Hungarian Peasant Songs of 1914-18. The playing here scintillates, with the orchestra’s principal clarinet eagerly replicating the weird tuning of a Romanian bagpipe. The recorded sound, though vivid and truthful, is balanced a little too close for comfort. Why isn’t this superb series being made in a larger acoustic? Malcolm Hayes