Bartok and Kodaly - SCO - International Record Review

Sir Charles Mackerras can be relied upon to turn in performances of quiet distinction. He has spoken self-seprecatingly of the sort of press criticism that can compare his swift, level-headed readings unfavourably with the grander, more obviously personalized conceptions of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. that said, I am not sure that he doesn't trump him here with his fresher, fleeter take on Bartók, not exactly core repertoire for either of them. While both conductors deploy less vibrato than we used to think proper in this repertoire, Harnoncourt is the more insistently aggressive, in part because his recording engineers come in to close, fabricating an unnaturally fierce sonic profile for the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. It helps Mackerras's cause, too, that he includes a bonus item, a sparkling account of the Dances of Galánta. So what if Kodály's music sounds a little thin played by a (reinforced) chamber orchestra? The musicians compensate with a nifty display of old-fashioned panache and vibrant instrumental colour. Even Ferenc Fricsay was wont to take a minute or so longer over the piece.

The Bartók scores are also lean in sonority, but they are rarely done with such a winning combination of precision and unforced drama. This is a Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste which will not spoil you for rival accounts. Only the first few bars of the finale struck me as a bit pedestrian. if the Divertimento seems marginally less successful, notwithstanding its freely expressive closing stages, this may well be because Harnoncourt's ultra-provocative, large-scale reworking (vividly evoked in the May issue by Graham Simpson) is too fresh in the memory. Neither as earthy or as steely as his rival, Mackerras doesn't make a hysterical psychodrama of its middle movement, and you may of course think that is all to the good.

Linn's SACD recordings, set down in two audibly unalike venues with different reverberation periods, are top-notch, the thwack of Bartók's snap-pizzicatos almost too vivid for comfort...

01 October 2004