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Thu, 01 Dec 2005

Bartok, Concertos

Bela BARTOK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra [37.57]
Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion [25.33]
Romanian Folkdances [6.34]
Heini Karkkainen, Paavali Jumppanen – pianos
Lassi Erkkila, Tim Ferchen - percussion
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec September 2004, Kulttuuritalo Hall of Culture, Helsinki, Finland
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61947-2 [70.42]

This all-Finnish production of Bartok’s most famous orchestral music is a rather traditional approach to recording production – big name conductor, well-established broadcasting orchestra and very traditional structure of repertoire. It is heartening to see Warner’s still taking this approach, appreciated by so many of the buying public, but not the cheapest alternative, in this day of doom-laden stories about the state of the classical music business.

Admittedly, there is no shortage of recordings of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra or the Concerto for two Pianos and Percussion, so why the need for another new version? Presumably this has been the personal choice of Sakari Oramo, a conductor who really came to prominence when appointed as Sir Simon Rattle’s successor at the City of Birmingham Symphony. Many at the time thought him brave to try to fill such capacious shoes, but Oramo swiftly established his own agenda at the CBSO and maintained their level of excellence over so smooth a transition that he has rapidly become one of the classical music world’s most bankable conductors. In this association with the Finnish Radio Symphony there is further interest, as Oramo, who started out as a violinist, was this orchestra’s leader for some years before moving onto the podium. Since the 2003-4 season he has been their chief conductor. The Finnish Radio Symphony has a distinguished record in the recording studio and is especially adept at this period of early 20th century music. In this recording the colours of Bartok’s wonderfully luminous orchestration glow beautifully. The opening of the Concerto for Orchestra is almost non-existent in its intense pianissimo. Comparing this to the pungent bassoon, oboe and clarinet playing of the second movement and one begins to appreciate the range of timbre that Oramo can draw from such an experienced orchestra.

The Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion dazzles in a different way. While there is still orchestral virtuosity the group of soloists dominate the work throughout. These are exceptional players. Both the Pianists and one of the Percussionists are Finns. The remaining percussionist, while American, has been playing with the Finnish Orchestra since 1977. The concerto is, of course, a re-working of one of Bartok’s mature masterpieces – its original form as the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. In making the concerto version, Bartok adopted the lightest of touches, basically adding the orchestral textures as a cloak over the unchanged body of the sonata. The added richness given by features such as the held string chord that underpins the end of the slow introduction as it leads to the boisterous Allegro molto section provides an additional dimension to the otherwise rather hard-edged timbre of the solo group. This aspect of hardness is prevalent throughout, in some very vigorous, almost jazz-like touches in the piano parts and in moments of tremendous power in the percussion, as with the thunderous timpani of the opening of the Allegro in the first movement. The slow middle movement manages to combine orchestra and soloists in a way that does nothing to detract from the minimalist “night music” effect. This is the least effective peformance. It would be desirable to hear a greater sense of tightness between the two pianos, offset by the irregularity of the percussion interjections. When the movement starts to grow more active, there is more of a feeling of purpose, but this takes some time to achieve. Tremendous virtuosity is the hallmark of the finale, which sparkles from the outset. Oramo sets a cracking pace, especially for a movement marked Allegro ma non troppo. This is probably too fast for what Bartok intended, but the soloists are certainly up for it and the effect is undeniably spectacular.

The Romanian dances are products of the early days of Bartok’s exile in America. Obviously standing comparison with the Slavonic dances of Dvorak or the Hungarian dances of Brahms, these are very much in the same mould, with lush orchestrations and less of the trademark angularity of Bartok’s original works. The Finnish players rise to the occasion again and this short set of dances makes a fitting conclusion to this excellent disc. ©Peter Wells

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