Telarc's pairing of these two orchestral showpieces is inspired. Though composed 11 years apart in different countries, they have a great deal in common — most especially in both composers' dedication to tapping into the folk melodies and rhythms of their respective countries, and in their choice of large-scale multi-movement orchestral (but not symphonic per se) structures.
Although it comes last on the CD, let me begin with what is undoubtedly Bartok's best-known piece. Written under commission from Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1943, this Concerto has always seemed to me to reflect both the tumultuous mid-war times and the strain of the composer's failing health — he died just two years later. Perhaps such associations account for the preponderance of dark-hued, sinister-sounding interpretations over the years. Certainly both of my favorite recordings — the classic Reiner/Chicago on RCA and the brilliant Ivan Fischer/Budapest Festival Orchestra on Philips — are almost frightening in their moody dramatic intensity.
Jarvi, however, takes a different approach to this music. While not exactly light-hearted, his reading is certainly more cheerful than what we are used to hearing, with slightly brisk tempi and more upbeat phrasing than either of the two paradigms mentioned above. And guess what? It works — beautifully! Jarvi's performance offers a charming and convincing alternative vision of Bartok's great masterpiece, and by itself would be ample reason to acquire this disc.
Polish composer Lutoslawski's Concerto from 1954 obviously owes some debt to the great Hungarian. There are snatches of melody here and there that evoke the earlier composition. But its three movements convey a loose, often febrile, wild-and-wooly feeling. After several hearings, I have still not grasped the internal logic of this piece, and even though such common structural terms as Passacaglia and Toccata are indicated within the movements, I am hard pressed to identify those forms. The experience of listening to this Concerto is a white-knuckle fasten-your-seat-belt roller-coaster ride — and a hell of a lot of fun! If you like brilliantly orchestrated and hyper-dynamic orchestral showpieces, this could well be your new favorite demonstration disc.
Paavo Jarvi has received a lot of exposure through his several recordings for Telarc, and the present disc is among the best of those. He draws impressive virtuosity from the Cincinnati Symphony, of which he is Music Director; his players handle the varied demands of these scores with spirit and great skill.
Kudos to Telarc for the engineering heard here. I listen to it in two-channel SACD, and the sound, as with the other Jarvi/Cincinnati discs I have heard, is superbly balanced. This label has come a long way since its bass-drum-that-ate-Cincinnati days; here we indeed have powerful dynamics, but in company with lovely tonality and superbly natural soundstaging. Bravo!
In case you haven't figured it out, very highly recommended!