Also, Music for strings, percussion and Celesta; Viola Concerto; Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra; Sonata for two pianos and percussion. Tabea Zimmermann, viola; Katia and Marielle Labeque, pianos; Sir Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra; David Shallon, Symphonie Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. EMI 50999 0 94627 2 4 (2-disc set).
If you are a fan of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) and you don't already have the performances in this two-disc EMI set, this might be the easiest and cheapest way to get them. Or, if you are largely unfamiliar with Bartok's work, this might also be the easiest and cheapest way to sample some of his more-popular of pieces. In either case, you'll get fine readings in good sound, a solid bargain all the way around.
The first disc opens with what is probably Bartok's most celebrated music, the Concerto for Orchestra, Sz116, his last completed orchestral work, written just a year before his death. It's a little ironic that after a lifetime of composition, his final piece of music might be his most-lasting contribution to the classical repertoire. Bartok noted in his program for the piece that the "concerto" of the title referred to the work's "tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner." As an overview, the composer suggested the work makes a transition from the stark grimness of the opening movements to the "death song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one."
One could not want a better interpretation of the piece than Sir Simon Rattle's with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He's graceful when he needs to be graceful, as in the second movement; he's mysterious when he needs to be, as in the third movement; he's eccentrically romantic when he needs to be, as in the fourth movement; and he's exciting when he needs to be, as in the Finale.
If I still have a preference for Fritz Reiner's performance (RCA) or either of Georg Solti's (Decca), it's not by a wide margin and only because I think RCA and Decca more vividly recorded them. EMI made Rattle's disc live in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England, in 1992, and it sounds a bit too close-up yet soft to my ears. In addition to which we have to live with a final, attention-breaking applause.
The second item on disc one is Bartok's Music for strings, percussion and Celesta, Sz106, from 1936, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. OK, admittedly, this performance doesn't have quite as much fire in its belly as Solti's, but I've always enjoyed it and thought it was by far the best recorded of the bunch. Like most of Bartok's music, this one is also in concertante form, that is, with orchestral support for extended solo parts, although we really don't hear the solo instruments until the second of the four movements. With Ormandy, the emphasis is on the fluidity of the instrumentation and the smoothness and eloquence of the rhythms. He makes what can sometimes be a rather noisy series of unrelated segments into a beautifully unified (and beautifully performed) whole, with an especially zesty final movement. The sound, recorded by EMI at the Old Met, Philadelphia, in 1978, is just as close as it is in the Rattle performance that precedes it, yet it has greater depth and clarity, and it comes without an audience and its attendant applause.
Disc two provides three works. The first is the Viola Concerto, Sz120, with Tabea Zimmermann playing the viola and David Shallon leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Bartok left the work unfinished at his death, and a pupil, Tibor Sirly, completed it. I've never cared much for it, but certainly Zimmermann plays it as well as anybody, and EMI's recording from 1989 is as clear and natural as one could want.
Finally, we get Bartok's Sonata for two pianos and percussion, Sz110, 1937, and the Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra, Sz115, 1941, the latter a rewrite of the former with added orchestral accompaniment. In the first two movements, you would probably not even notice the presence or absence of the orchestra, and it's only in the final movement that the orchestra comes into its own in the Concerto. Yet, even here you have to ask yourself if it's necessary. In any case, the playing by the Labeques, with Rattle and the CBSO in the Concerto, and the recording, made in 1985, are all exemplary.