I closed my review of Pentatone's previous release (Ligeti's String Quartets played by the fabulous Diotima Quartet) with: "I'm actually excited about the Pentatone label again." Well, this latest one doesn't generate quite that same level of excitement, but it's still pretty good.
I must start with a couple of off-putting production details, though, before we get to the music.
Pentatone, which established its place in the Classical music world as the label for SACD, has since abandoned the format and is now branching out into digital downloads and streaming. Most of its new releases on a physical medium are CD only. I understand; it's a sign of the times. But what annoys me is that nowhere is that fact revealed on their front or back covers. In fact, they conspicuously go out of their way to NOT display any format logos of any kind - not even the "Digital Compact Disc" logo. It's not even stamped on the CD itself. Not until one loads the disc in the player and it defaults to "CD" is it confirmed this is indeed CD only. I harp on Pentatone for this because all their releases from the very beginning have been SACDs. But now suddenly they are not.
To be fair, there are two vague indicators on the back (which you have to really look for to find), printed sideways in the extreme lower corner:
a) the "Stereo" logo, which pretty much ensures this is not a multi-channel/hybrid SACD; and
b) the PCM logo - which likely will not mean anything to most collectors. For those interested: SACDs use DSD digital encoding, while CDs use PCM.
Next, this recording was made of a LIVE performance in the Netherlands. Nowhere is that disclosed until after you've purchased it and read it in the booklet in the fine print on the "Acknowledgements" page. So I think Pentatone is being a bit disingenuous with several aspects of this release.
Before getting to the music, I was interested in learning something about conductor Karina Canellakis. I suppose folks in the Netherlands know all about her, but I had not heard of her before. Unbelievably, the CD booklet makes no mention of her whatsoever. Not a single word about the conductor or the orchestra. Curiously there is a blurb on the Amazon page about her in which we learn she is the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra's new chief conductor, she's "in high demand", and has a brand new exclusive recording contract with Pentatone. All good to know. One wonders why the folks at Pentatone didn't see fit to include all this exciting news in her debut album with them. After all, it's her picture on their cover, not Bartok's.
But enough grumbling about the production. Let's get to what matters most - the music.
I was pleased Pentatone placed the 4 Orchestral Pieces first on the CD, rather than appending it after the triumphant finale of the main work. These were originally written for two pianos in 1912 and orchestrated 11 years later. With Canellakis at the helm, my first impression was that the opening Preludio and concluding Marcia funebre are pretty severe and need a little more variety of textures and dynamics. To be fair, the recording does her no favors, which sounds a bit stuffy and compressed. Fortunately, matters improve in the two central Pieces, with more air and spaciousness to the acoustic. In the Scherzo, Canellakis brings plenty of energy and drama, but it's not driven. She handles the variety of tempo changes with aplomb and the orchestra responds with gusto. It is so "reminiscent" of Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin I was shocked to discover this was actually written 13 years before the ballet! The best is yet to come in the glorious 3rd Piece (Intermezzo), with its haunting rhythmic pulses played so sensuously by muted strings. This is wonderfully atmospheric and alluring.
Turning to the main attraction, competition is fierce in the Concerto For Orchestra, and during the opening movement I wasn't convinced Canellakis would get the most out of it. It's rather brooding in her hands and could use a touch more momentum. But all reservations are swept aside with the 2nd movement, whose very fast tempo and attention to details perked me up instantly. So much so I consulted the score and discovered that the Boosey & Hawkes 1993 Revised Edition has "resolved any uncertainty over tempo indication and metronome marking for this movement, and that Quarter Note = 94 is Bartok's true intention". I dutifully dusted off my metronome (literally) and confirmed that is exactly the tempo I'm hearing on this recording. So kudos to Ms. Canellakis for doing her homework and daring to play this movement up to tempo. To be honest, I initially thought it sounded almost comical at this speed. And all those short, abrupt poco ritards were rushed through with scant regard, sounding a bit awkward. But on a subsequent listen, after acclimating to the faster tempo, they sounded more natural and the entire movement simply dances with life and wit - as if brushing off old cobwebs. (The bassoons obviously had a marvelous time with it!)
After a rather conventional 3rd movement, the 4th is similarly brought to life with quick tempos and vivid characterization. As a matter of fact, the entire orchestra seems to be thoroughly enjoying themselves in these central movements. I also noted some delightful woodwind solos, especially from the delectable piccolo and principal flute.
The Finale dashes off fully up to speed, and ultimately is a little breathless. But Canellakis doesn't drive it too hard, observing that the majority of big passages are marked forte, not fortissimo. (Bartok uses a true fortissimo very sparingly.) The movement as a whole exhibits impressive scope and generates splendid momentum leading up to the final climax. That ending, though, didn't quite raise the roof as I would have expected. I just wonder if that final section (from Figure 573, which includes the alternate ending Bartok composed after the premier) was recorded separately without the audience present to preclude the cheers and applause at the end. The acoustic is just perceptibly different here and the final ff doesn't quite erupt into an unrestrained climax as it should. But never mind, it's more than satisfactory, if not hair-raising.
Speaking of the audience, one would never know this is a recording of a live concert. There are no extraneous audience noises and Pentatone has mercifully edited out any applause.
I'm sure the good folks in the Netherlands love their new conductor. And watching her conduct concerts on YouTube, her animated charisma on the podium is likely a real crowd-pleaser. While this is not the very best recording of Bartok's final masterwork, it is certainly worth hearing. And, frankly, any new recording which prompts me to grab my score and discover something new is remarkable indeed. I will be interested to see what she and Pentatone come up with next.
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