After listening to the recent Pentatone CD of Bartok with a female conductor, I thought it would be intriguing to compare it to this one on BIS with another female conductor. Both play the Concerto for Orchestra, but with different couplings.
While I thought Karina Canellakis turned in a very good reading on Pentatone (please see my review elsewhere on my blog), it wouldn't be a first choice. But it was interesting and she brought some true insight to this over-recorded masterwork. With Susanna Malkki on BIS, however, the music-making is even more immaculate, but the entire affair is a little too calculated and lacking spontaneity. This comes from the podium first and foremost, but also from the somewhat clinical recorded sound, which is almost too clean. I wished for just a touch more richness from this orchestra.
The orchestral playing throughout is excellent. They diligently do exactly what Malkki asks for but there is precious little inspiration. Beginning with Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the first movement starts promisingly. It is nicely mysterioso at a good tempo (a true Andante, as marked, not Adagio), but doesn't develop with enough tension into the devastating climax it should. And while the opening of the 3rd movement, sans vibrato, is chilling, the central section on harmonics is rushed and too matter-of-fact. As is the entirety of the finale, which is meticulous, fast and a bit lightweight.
And the Concerto for Orchestra definitely needs to be more vividly characterized. Despite good orchestral execution, it's all a bit routine. Compared to Canellakis, the central movements are thoroughly uneventful. And the finale, which is whisked away at a helter-skelter speed, fails to generate real adrenaline. It's fast just to be fast - then she inexplicably slams on the brakes for the ending, which just falls flat.
This BIS recording is ideal for anyone wanting to study the score. Inner details are revealed with laser precision and Malkki brings out individual lines whether important or not. But in the end, that last bit of engaging involvement is lacking. (It was interesting to read in the booklet that Malkki is also principal guest conductor in Los Angeles. Perhaps not coincidentally, that's exactly how I hear Dudamel's conducting as well.)
There is a review on Amazon which sums up the current state of Classical orchestral recordings perfectly. In his description of this Bartok, "Long-time Listener" says it best (and I quote): "We are in an era of highly competent, well-managed, but not terribly passionate or transcendent readings of classic works -- and that's what we get here." I could not have said it better myself.