Composer(s): Béla Bartók
Conductor: Antal Doráti
Orchestra/Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Hungarica
Label: Mercury Living Presence
Catalog #: 432017
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 1 hour 11 mins
SPARS Code: ADD
Reviewer: John Grabowski (Amazon Customer Review)
Boulez (DG) and Reiner (RCA) have "the reputation" in the Concerto for Orchestra by Bartok, as the many reviews praising both recordings will attest. Yet for my money this disc is "where it's at," to use street slang. Dorati gives us stunning clarity and some real insights into a work that's a lot more complex than other recordings will have you realize. There are inner details revealing Bartok's complex cross-rhythms that often get lost in the frenzy of brass and percussion in many performances. Amazingly, this recording is as powerful and, well, "loud" as any other--in fact even more than most, including Boulez's effort with the CSO--yet all the delicate detail shows through. You'll hear lines you never heard before, and discover phrases to be make up of combinations of instruments you didn't realize. The same relevations are present in the Dance Suite as well. One almost feels like one is examing a score when hearing these performances, but that's not meant as an insult. Rather it means the clarity of Bartok's writing comes through in ways I've not heard before or since. Just listen for the way Dorati prepares, in the ostinato figure, for the forte entrance for the strings at 2:13 of the first movement (so often that entrance just sounds arbrtrary and out of nowhere), or the chilling blending of the winds at 1:10 in the third movement. Then listen to the descending line in the flutes (?) at 5:06 of the same movement--I've never heard them in any previous performance. That whole moment is prepared for brilliantly, with a slow gradual buildup of tension that had me holding my breath. Dorati seems to recognize something many other conductors have not--this mournful slow movement is really the spine of the symphony, the weightiest movement. After this gloomiest of moments, the next movement is not the light lilting flicker it often is played as, but rather sunlight emerging from cloudy skies, with muted optimism from the strings starting at 1:05. The comical turn at roughly two minutes in, based on everything from a bawdy jig to the first movement of the Shostakovich 7th Symphony, depending on whom you ask, is taken for all it's worth. The finale, which begins with a rarely-heard accelerando that works perfectly to raise the pulse, is like staring into a clear pond and seeing (or hearing) all sorts of intricate inner details for the first time. Listen to the trombone line(s) at 1:52. Bet you didn't know those were two deparate brass lines, did you, so often do we hear just one blast of trombone. But careful attention to phrasing throughout this recording--making sure this player doesn't step on that player's last note, or ensuring a syncopated phrase is clear--is what makes this recording stand above the rest.
Dorati also contrasts tempos more than any other conductor I've heard, bringing very different characteristics to the various sections within each movement and really differentiating them for the listener. Because of the distinctions from section to section, I got a sense of the structure in all the works here far more stronly than I do from most recordings, yet nothing is forced, or indeed even that extreme. I wonder instead why so many other conductors have been so tentative in infusing Bartok with their own personality. The much-heralded Boulez recording is especially disappointing here.
There are a few very minor flaws. Despite first-rate sound, there are occasional quick "drop-outs" here and there, probably due to the 35mm film recording medium and the recording's age. The miking is a bit too close perhaps. These blemishes shouldn't discourage anyone, however, except possibly the most hard-core audiophile who treasures great sound more than great music.