Energy and iciness in Bartok recordings

Classical Sounds

December 08, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Bartok, "Concerto for Orchestra" and "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta," performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting (Sony Classical SK 62598); Bartok, "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" and "The Wooden Prince" (complete ballet music), performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati conducting (Mercury 434 357-2); Bartok, "Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta," Mussorgsky-Ravel, "Pictures at an Exhibition," performed by the Chicago Symphony, Rafael Kubelik conducting (Mercury 434 378-2).

Evidence that exciting playing by the Chicago Symphony did not begin with Fritz Reiner is provided by Kubelik's recording of Mussorgsky's "Pictures." This version of "Pictures" (in the familiar Ravel orchestration), which was taped early in 1951 in the first of Kubelik's three seasons as the orchestra's music director, was considered a landmark in recorded sound when it was first issued and it still sounds terrific. It is also a terrifically vibrant performance in which the young conductor -- Kubelik was only 36 -- takes the bit into his mouth and runs. In terms of sheer kinetic energy, there is no more exciting version of the Mussorgsky-Ravel in the catalog, not even the one Reiner produced with the same orchestra several years later.

This is not to say that it is as good. Kubelik's performance emphasizes the Mussorgsky side of the hyphen, turning the "Pictures" into a Slavonic work, while Reiner's celebrated performance weights both sides equally. It is for that reason that Reiner's is the greater performance. Reiner uses the tonal palette of the orchestra more delicately and judiciously than Kubelik, making the listener realize that Ravel, in transcribing Mussorgsky's piano original, also produced one of the great works in the French orchestral repertory.

Chicago, of course, jettisoned Kubelik after the 1952-1953 season for Reiner. The rightness of that decision is confirmed by comparison of Kubelik's performance of Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" with the one Reiner recorded a few years later. Kubelik tries to bully his way through this technically challenging music in much the same way he does the Mussorgsky-Ravel. The results, while exciting, are messy; this performance compares to Reiner's as a vichyssoise-stained shirt does to one that is spotless and freshly pressed.

More persuasive Bartok can be heard in another Mercury reissue, this time of Antal Dorati's performances of "The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" and the composer's music for the ballet, "The Wooden Prince." The former is performed with greater intensity than it is in the version Dorati recorded nearly 20 years later for Decca in Detroit. And this much underrated Hungarian conductor leads "The Wooden Prince," in which Bartok approaches the folkloric lyricism of Stravinsky's "Firebird," with remarkable warmth and detail.

Still more Bartok comes from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in performances of the "Concerto for Orchestra" and the seemingly ubiquitous "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" that are among the most impressive recordings this Finnish conductor has made. Salonen's reading of the second of these pieces does not convey the earthiness suggested by the versions of Hungarian-born conductors such as Reiner, Dorati, Ormandy and Solti, but it is nevertheless alluring in its eerily icy perfection. No conductor -- not even Reiner -- captures more successfully the glistening, nocturnal mood of the third movement, with its glissandos and trills. And the popular "Concerto for Orchestra" is also played most persuasively. While there may be more lighthearted and human approaches to this music, none is wittier or more dazzling than this new one by Salonen.

Hear the music

To hear excerpts from "Bartok, 'Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta,' " performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6195. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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