Bartok and Kodaly - SCO - James H. North
01 September 2004
James H. North
I recently reviewed a Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta led very slowly by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, including a table of movement timings. Mackerras falls midway between the extremes, but keep in mind that the fast extreme is the composer's. Nobody today plays MUSPAC (or any other Bartók) up to speed, so Mackerras sounds about right until heard with the trio of historic Hungarian conductors: Fricsay, Reiner, Solti. Their whiplash readings remain the best. A bigger problem here is the small orchestra: despite the work's seemingly chamber-music nature, Bartók asked for full symphonic forces, in particular, larger than those of Paul Sacher's Basel Chamber Orchestra, which gave the premiere. As always, he knew exactly what he wanted and he was right; tension is lacking throughout this performance, and the Scottish violins are not able to balance the timpani outbursts in the finale. What Mackerras has going for him is delicate yet potent recorded sound, marvelous even as a straight CD. The celesta/harp/piano sections of the Adagio are especially lovely.
Made in acoustically opulent Usher Hall in Edinburgh, the recording doesn't pinpoint the instruments as well as some other two-channel recordings. I do not yet have SACD equipment at home; so, after getting to know these recordings in two channels, I repaired to my local Linn dealer's new SACD setup. The fact that this disc also comes from Linn doesn't prejudice the comparison, as my two-channel CD player, preamplifier, and amplifier are also Linn. The main differences are that the strings glow on the SACD and the instrument placements become clearer amid the multichannel sound.
This performance of the Divertimento has similar faults and virtues. Despite being easy-going, it is a stunning listening experience. The hard-chugging moments are underplayed, but the lyrical sections are so beautiful as to make one forgive all else. This is a piece that can seduce as well as conquer. Mackerras pursues the former path, Harnoncourt (on the disc with his MUSPAC) the latter; both succeed. Bartók called Kodály's music "the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit." Yet, when paired with Bartók on a disc, it usually comes off a distant second. That problem is solved here by putting Kodály's finest work first on the disc, so one hears it before being overwhelmed by MUSPAC, and by giving it a stylish, sympathetic performance, superbly reproduced.
This becomes my first choice recording of Dances of Galánta. The stereo sound is so fine that you shouldn't pass up this compatible CD just because you don't have SACD capabilities. Which suggests the answer to a seeming paradox: each new technological improvement sounds like a leap forward at first, yet viewed over the long term progress is slow and gradual-think how many 30-year-old recordings are still sources of audiophile releases, including many SACDs. A new technology scores partly because the top engineers of the day are putting their best efforts into it; once it becomes the mainstream, lesser work becomes the norm.
Related LinksScottish Chamber OrchestraBartok & Kodaly