Salonen's live, 2016 Bartok program begins and ends without incident - to a fault. It is glossed over and I found myself surprised it was over as quickly as it was. Nothing caught my attention, nothing involved me in the music, nothing held my interest. Tempos are quick and articulation is smooth (and that's not good).
The Philharmonia plays well, as always. But, for a live performance, Salonen sounds oddly disinterested. He brings not a bit of excitement or sense of immersion into these scores. Indeed, how one gets through the complete Miraculous Mandarin without any sense of drama is baffling. The orchestra lacks weight and power, and the closing sections are played and sung so matter-of-factly, it is not a bit eerie, nor is there even a hint of the gory details of the story line portrayed. The lack of an organ is also a serious detriment - it lacks that sense of awesome fear that it alone can instill (just listen to the spectacular recordings by Antal Dorati/Detroit and Christoph von Dohnanyi/Vienna, both on Decca, to hear exactly what the inclusion of an organ does for this score).
And Signum's smooth, mellow recording does it no favors. This is odd for Signum - while they are certainly not in the league of extraordinary recording companies such as Chandos and Pentatone, I have experienced good sound from some of their previous releases, which can be dynamic, brightly lit and realistic. Not so here. It is as smooth as Salonen is passive. More of same pervades the Dance Suite, which does not dance or involve one in any way. It passes by completely uneventfully. The audience, incidentally, is silent - presumably bored as well.
By far the best thing on this disc is the Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano. The recorded sound also improves considerably. The mics are close to the performers, bringing the piece immediately to life, with outstanding playing from all three. It's unfortunate that this piece accounts for only 17 minutes of the duration of this disc.
This disc is especially baffling given the excellence of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Stravinsky recordings made for SONY in the 1990s. Indeed, those are some of the very best Stravinsky recordings in my collection. Why Bartok eludes him is a complete mystery.
I really enjoyed Gardner's Lutoslawski recordings for Chandos, with the fabulous BBC Symphony Orchestra. So I was really looking forward to his 2013 Bartok, particularly as it is an SACD. However, for this recording, he stands before the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and, alas, it is a major disappointment. Despite the usual high standards of recording quality from Chandos, Gardner and this orchestra do not seem comfortable with the challenges of Bartok.
Listening first to Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, I was alarmed at the clunky string playing in the 1st movement. Indeed, in the last moments, not only are they not together, but they can't sustain a pianissimo with control - some notes stick out jarringly (clunky). And in the last phrase, some players bleed into the final unison "A" prematurely (ala Mantovani), quite ruining the entire structural (not mention, musical) effect. This really should have been rehearsed a few more times then re-recorded. As it is, it crowns off a movement which is taken too slowly (it's marked Andante, not Adagio) and lacks intensity.
Moving on to the 2nd movement, we encounter more problems with this string section, namely a serious lack of articulation. Dynamics are observed, but the attack of bow-on-string is missing. It's all too smooth and lacking in bite. Gardner observes every minute change in Bartok's tempo indications here, but they are exaggerated and sound calculated and lacking spontaneity. The tension sags when he slows the pace, then when he tries to regain momentum, it's too little too late.
Am I being too critical of this reading? Nope. I pulled out my trusty Reiner/Chicago Symphony RCA SACD and instantly heard the familiar, authentic Bartok flavor and energy return. Here is a perfectly judged tempo for the first movement Andante (more than a minute quicker than Gardner!), with real intensity and sense of mystery and anticipation. And in the 2nd movement, their unanimity of articulation and attack, of bow-on-string, is immediately apparent and so very effective - and is exactly what Bartok's music demands. This isn't (or shouldn't be) all that remarkable; Reiner isn't asking his players to do anything unusual or novel. He's simply demanding that they play with correct bowing and absolute concentration. Why is this missing so often today?
Incidentally, I was amazed to hear (once again) that absolutely no concessions need be made for the recorded quality of this 60 year-old RCA recording. Indeed, it sounded every bit as good as the 2013 Chandos. And the playing throughout - well, orchestras don't play like this today.
The more Impressionistic and rhapsodic Four Orchestral Pieces work rather better for Gardner, thanks in large part to the magnificent Chandos recording (ok, the sheer amplitude of sound here does transcend the old RCA - but just barely). I didn't bother with the ballet suite, which is rather pointless, as some of the best music is excised. Plus, I can only imagine Gardner and the Melbourne's lazy string section having quite a difficult time with it.
Oh how I long for the days of the trail-blazing conductors who made their orchestras work and made music come alive. Today, it seems to be all about relaxing with a glass of wine with the stereo playing just to take the edge off the day. This Bartok disc does just that.