I am thrilled to see Eloquence reissue some of Solti's rare, long-unavailable, or 1st-time-on-CD recordings from earlier in his career. While I wish they would single out just those recordings and issue them all together on a nice, convenient 2-fer, I understand they want to make money and are therefore combining them with previously and readily available recordings to make logical collections. This does, of course, force the consumer to purchase unnecessary and duplicated works (and in many cases, entire CDs) just to obtain the one rarity. But I shall not complain, as many of these are exciting finds. (There are at least 4 more such compilations coming soon.)
I will begin with a Bartok 2-fer: Bartok Orchestral Works. Disc 1 offers us an exact duplication of the 2001 Decca Legends release of Solti's 1960s Bartok with the LSO. I am happy to report that Eloquence used the 96hz/24-bit remastering from that Legends release (confirmed not only by the sonics but also by the named remastering engineer in the booklet). I generally prefer these earlier readings over his later Chicago remakes. Also included, on disc 2, are his Chicago recordings of the Divertimento for Strings, Hungarian Sketches and Romanian Folk Dances. These are the pick of his Chicago Bartok recordings and are most welcome here, even if they involve duplication. The Divertimento, in particular, which is so often heard played by a chamber orchestra, is magnificent in Solti's hands with the entire Chicago Symphony string section, resplendently recorded.
Now to the rarity, and the raison d'être of this release. For the first time on CD, we have Solti's 1963 Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta with the LSO. I have always felt Solti's remake of this work with the Chicago Symphony was let down, somewhat, by an over-driven, manic 4th movement, which was exacerbated by an unnecessary, slight increase in recording level from the engineers, giving the strings an unnatural, searingly aggressive sound. The 1st three movements, however, came very close to matching the supreme glories of Reiner's recording of it, with the same orchestra, 40 years previous.
Solti's 1963 recording with the LSO is actually quite similar, but surprisingly, a little more mellow - partly the fault of the recording. I was expecting a similar level of fire and white hot intensity that I hear in his other LSO Bartok readings, but, curiously, it sounds nothing like those. The recording is murky, with the orchestra set back in the distance, muffling detail and treble frequencies. Pizzicatos are indistinct and practically inaudible. And, particularly in the 2nd movement, the bow-on-string incisiveness and sheer power of the LSO strings are muted. There are some odd balance issues as well. The piano, for example, is spotlit, and quite spoils the atmosphere created by the antiphonally placed strings when it jarringly interrupts the soundstage, thrust out in front. Conversely, the entire percussion section is distant and very muffled. The timpani and xylophone, so important in this piece, are so muddy one can hardly hear any attack of mallet on drum/wood. And the bass drum is non-existent. Things improve for the finale, but the extremely dry acoustic lends a lack-luster sound to the orchestra, with the hall acoustic ruthlessly eliminated.
For a quick comparison (in addition to Reiner's and Solti's Chicago recordings, with which I am very familiar), I pulled out Karajan's earlier (1957) Berlin recording for EMI. I was pleasantly surprised to hear again how good it is (unlike his slow/homogenous remake for DG) - due in large part to the excellent recording quality. In all three comparison recordings, the strings have more texture, color and articulation; the timpani have much clearer impact; the xylophone rings out resplendently - the attack of the hard mallet startling and filling the acoustic; and, especially in Berlin, the pizzicatos are stunningly realistic - as if the players are sitting right in front you. All of these qualities are curiously mitigated in London.
In sum, for anyone new to Bartok, or new to Solti's earlier LSO Bartok recordings, this set is indispensable. However, for Solti admirers, who surely already have the majority of this material on any number of various CDs (it has been reissued, and recoupled many times over the years), this set hardly seems worth it for the one rarity - especially as it is not as remarkable, or well recorded, as hoped.