On two highly praised albums, Susanna Mälkki and her players in the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra have released recordings of Béla Bartók’s three scores for the stage – The Miraculous Mandarin, The Wooden Prince and Bluebeard’s Castle, all written before 1918. The team now takes on two of his late orchestral masterpieces. Composed in 1936 for the Basel Chamber Orchestra, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is one of the purest examples of Bartók’s mature style, with its synthesis of folk music, classicism and modernism. One immediately striking feature is the unusual instrumentation: two string orchestras seated on opposite sides of the stage, with percussion and keyboard instruments in the middle and towards the back. In 1940, during the Second World War, Bartók emigrated to the U.S.A., where he initially found it difficult to compose. In 1943 he received a prestigious commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, however, and in less than eight weeks he composed the Concerto for Orchestra. In it he worked with contrasts between different sections of the orchestra, and the soloistic treatment of these groupings was his reason for calling the work a concerto rather than a symphony.
There hasn’t been a coupling of these two iconic works this successful in, well, decades. Usually the pieces get divided between different performers, or if it’s the same forces throughout, one work comes off better than the other. Not here. Start with the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. No one (except possibly Reiner) attempts to play it at Bartók’s indicated timings–around six+ minutes per movement. Everyone is slower, and often rightly so, but sometimes rather too much slower. Mälkki sounds just about perfect: in the range of seven minutes per movement, with an eerily flowing opening fugue, a ferocious second movement Allegro, a terrifying Adagio (listen to those timpani glissandos at the bottom of the texture), and a finale that features an imaginative and characterful flexibility of tempo, highlighting its dance-like character. The Helsinki strings play with extraordinary discipline, even if some of the “special effects” such as col legno bowing could resister more strongly. Never mind. It’s a great performance.
So is that of the Concerto for Orchestra. Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that it sounds like a genuine collaborative effort between conductor and orchestra. Mälkki keeps the music flowing, reveling in the fine ensemble that the Helsinki Philharmonic has become: the brass fugato in the first movement, the “games of pairs” in the second, or the eerie woodwind solos in the brooding Elegia–nothing here is less than world-class. In the finale, Mälkki finds an idea balance between hard-driving forward movement and precision of articulation. She also keep something especially exciting in reserve for the coda, which dashes away thrillingly. BIS has captured the entire production in powerfully present, tactile sound that really lets you hear down through the ensemble, from top to bottom. This really is an exceptional release. If you love this music, be sure to hear it.
– ClassicsToday.com (10/10; David Hurwitz)