In theory at least, Bartok's popular Concerto for Orchestra shouldn't present a conductor with the kind of interpretive difficulties that, say, his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste does. If one is willing to follow the composer's obsessively detailed instructions, and has the good fortune to find oneself in front of a world-class orchestra, success is almost certainly assured. It's always thrilling to hear a great orchestra rise to the virtuosic demands of this score, and the final movement, if executed precisely, should bring the audience to their feet every time.
Since this is exactly the approach most conductors take, it's hardly surprising that most performances of the Concerto sound pretty much alike. Paavo Jarvi's recent recording with his Cincinnati Symphony follows true to form: the performance is detailed and extremely well played, but I'm not sure you could tell it apart from several others just as scrupulously observed and excitingly rendered. I suspect the reason so many orchestral musicians claim to respect, but not to love the Concerto is the number of essentially streamlined, faceless performances they've given of it.
Though it's certainly true that the Concerto was deliberately written to be a popular piece, a means for the ailing composer of to secure his beleaguered family's future, it is also at once the summation of his entire career and his last will and testament. The composition of the work followed a long silence as Bartok coped with a series of increasingly debilitating illnesses and preceded what he surely knew at the time was his fast-approaching death, and he seems to have put into it his doubt and despair as well as his ferocious hunger for life. The conflict between those two extremes forms the drama of a work that (in Bartok's own words) takes us from "the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third to the life assertion of the last."
But if what you want to hear in this music is not mere virtuosic display, but the life and death struggle that was its chief inspiration, you have drastically reduced options: Ferenc Fricsay and the RIAS Symphony Orchestra (in mono), Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, Rafael Kubelik and the Boston Symphony, and Ivan Fischer and his magnificent Budapest Festival Orchestra all infuse the music with an incandescent intensity and expressiveness missing in so many otherwise perfectly acceptable performances. Largely ignored on its initial release, and recently reissued by Arkiv Music, this 1991 recording by Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra now takes its rightful place in that select company.
Like most Italian conductors, Chailly served a long apprenticeship in the pit of provincial opera houses, and that experience seems to have permanently shaped his approach to orchestral music. Here, for example, he addresses the emotional content of the music directly and organizes each of the five movements around sharply contrasting moods. Certainly there's no greater contrast than that which separates the waking nightmare of the third movement Elegia from the final movement's joyful folk dance. Chailly gives full measure to both extremes without any trace of exaggeration or melodrama. The Elegia is brutal, almost cruel in its lethal impact; the finaleis fierce, sometimes delirious in its blaze of affirmation.Here and elsewhere, Chailly gives such full expression to the drama that he sometimes seems to go right over the top, but that's a quality he shares with my other favorite recordings of this work.
The Miraculous Mandarin is given complete, a good thing — for Chailly does the spooky last scene (not included in the Suite) as well as I've ever heard it played. Though this performance isn't as violent or convulsive as others, no one is going to feel shortchanged by its intensity or sense of character. Few conductors have rendered the very specialized sound world of this score with greater precision or expression. Chailly is constantly reminding us that no music (not even Le Sacre) has ever sounded quite like this, so utterly sensual and expressionistic. Though The Miraculous Mandarin is much less frequently recorded than the Concerto, there are nonetheless many excellent versions to choose from, and I wouldn't want to be without Ivan Fischer, Claudio Abbado, Jean Martinon, Antal Dorati, or Pierre Boulez. But those who respond to the gaudy depravities of this score will find much to enjoy with this very generous filler.
During his tenure as music director of the Concertgebouw, Chailly was said to be have made the orchestra's sound — famous for its dark sonorities and harmonic richness — brighter and leaner; which is to say less Germanic and more Italian. That may well be so, but here the Concertgebouw projects a kaleidoscopic range of moods and sounds that suggest both its virtuosity and its essential character. I suspect that in these performances Chailly was trying to push the orchestra beyond its comfort zone in music that was overly familiar, and they respond by taking risks I don't hear in either of their two prior recordings of the Concerto (Van Beinum in 1948, Haitink in 1963).
The sound is not quite state of the art, but still impressive overall. The bright top end gives the brass, especially the trumpets, a palpable bite, and there is plenty of bone-jarring "whump" on the bottom. As is their wont, the London engineers give us a vivid soundstage that is both wide and deep. The smallest details register even when the whole orchestra is sounding at full cry. Just listen to the woodwinds keening during the parody section of the fourth movement.
As I've said, we have Arkiv Music to thank for this release. It's part of an ongoing series of worthy reissues. Given the thoughtless and confusing way most of the major record labels deal with the glories of their back catalogues, it's just as well an independent broker is making available performances that would otherwise remain deleted. These performances celebrate a high point in Riccardo Chailly's collaboration with the great orchestra he led for thirteen years, and is definitely worth your attention.