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Bartok: Rhapsody, Scherzo, Violin Concerto No. 1 - Fischer, Kocsis

Bartok: Rhapsody, Scherzo, Violin Concerto No. 1 - Fischer, Kocsis

Hungaroton  HSACD 32504

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical


Bartok: Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra Op. 1, Scherzo for Orchestra and Piano Op. 2, Violin Concerto No. 1

Zoltán Kocsis (piano)
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Ivan Fischer (conductor)

Barnabás Kelemen (violin)
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra
Zoltán Kocsis (conductor)

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Review by Graham Williams - December 19, 2007

This is the second release in Hungaroton’s ‘Bartok New Series’ edition on SACD and proves to be something of a mixed bag.

Only the Violin Concerto No. 1 is a new recording (2006), while the other two works are re-issues from a set of Bartok works, recorded by Philips in 1985-86, that also included the three Piano Concertos and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. This has now been licensed to Hungaroton by Decca and re-mastered for SACD with the addition of three, presumably artificially created, surround channels. No information, however, is given about this in the accompanying booklet.

It was certainly a good idea to couple these three early works together as the music, though in no sense characteristic of the later Bartok, is immediately engaging, teems with brilliant ideas and makes a well-filled disc lasting 74’12”.

The ‘Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra’, whose complex history is fully detailed in the excellent notes, takes us into the world of Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies, albeit with a little more harmonic pungency. It is written in the manner of a czardas in which an extended slow opening section is followed by a shorter lively one. I was particularly taken with the unexpected quiet ending to the piece, a dialogue between piano and solo horn that is quite magical. The challenges of the virtuoso piano writing present no difficulty for the formidable technique of Zoltán Kocsis, and he gives a magnificent account of the piece, while Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s accompaniment is both polished and flamboyant in equal measure. It would be hard to imagine a more exciting and idiomatic performance than this being committed to disc.

On the original manuscript, Bartok entitled his Op.2 as ‘Scherzo for Orchestra and Piano’ and although the piano makes an early entrance it is the orchestra that is the main protagonist for much of the time. It is an ambitious piece, lasting half an hour, in four contrasting but inter-related sections. These are a slow introduction and two scherzi separated by a trio. Within each of these sections the young Bartok’s febrile imagination runs riot and we are treated to an amazing melange of musical ideas, rarely much developed, but illustrating the composer’s fecundity at this stage in his life. It is hugely entertaining, though some may perhaps consider it just a little too long. Once again Kocsis, Fischer and the BFO give an impeccable performance of this fascinating work.

As far as the sound is concerned, the early digital origins of both these re-masterings are often all too apparent. Kocis’s Bösendorfer, though recorded with commendable clarity, sounds a trifle shallow and lacking in bass, while the recording imparts a glassy sheen and shrillness to the violins of the Budapest Festival Orchestra when they are playing forte. The acoustic of the Italian Institute, Budapest, where these recordings were made, is certainly not as spacious as that of the new National Concert Hall, and I felt that the orchestral image was trapped between the front speakers rather than extending outside them. The surround channels, though quite audible, on this occasion add little tangible benefit.

The final work on the disc is the two-movement First Violin Concerto that Bartok composed as a declaration of love (not, however, reciprocated) for the young violinist Stefi Geyer, and the recording immediately manifests its sonic superiority over that of the previous two items. The sound is warm and spacious with a convincing, if somewhat close, balance between soloist and orchestra. The seamless and entwining lines of the concerto’s lyrical 1st movement benefit from the stylish playing of Barnabás Kelemen. He performs on a 1742 Guarneri del Gesú violin that was previously used by Dénes Kovács. Its rich dark tone is perfectly suited to this romantic music. There is much characterful playing from the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, and in particular its fine wind section. This complements Kelemen’s trenchant performance of the contrasting second movement, while throughout the concerto the alert accompaniment provided by Zoltán Kocsis shows that his conducting skills are the equal of his pianism.

More information on Barnabas Kelemen can be found at http://www.barnabaskelemen.com/index_en.htm where one can also listen to extensive examples of his playing including a couple of excerpts from Bartok’s Violin Concerto No.2, a work that I hope he might record for a future issue in this ‘New Bartok Series’.

As I have indicated, the musical and performance values of this SACD are very high indeed, but the sonics are somewhat compromised by the little-better-than-CD quality of the first two items.

Copyright © 2007 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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