Ozawa: Bartok - Concerto for Orchestra, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (DVD-A)
Ozawa: Bartok - Concerto for Orchestra, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (DVD-A)

Performer: Hiroshi Arimori
Orchestra: Saito Kinen Orchestra
Conductor: Seiji Ozawa
Composer: Bela Bartok
Audio CD
Number of Discs: 1
Format: DVD-A ISO 24/88
Label: Philips
Size: 4.46 GB
Recovery: +3%
Scan: no

Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, Sz. 106, BB 114
01. I. Andante tranquillo
02. II. Allegro
03. III. Adagio
04. IV. Allegro molto
Conductor: Seiji Ozawa
Performer:
Mariko Kobayashi, Everett Firth (Timpani)
Sawako Yasue (Xylophone)
Hiroshi Arimori (Piano)
Naoko Yoshino (Harp)
Venue: Auditorium di Milano, Milan, Italy
Recording Date 05/30/2004

Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 127
05. I. Introduzione: Andante non troppo – Allegro vivace
06. II. Giuoco delle coppie: Allegreto scherzando
07. III. Elegia: Andante non troppo
08. IV. Intermezzo interrotto: Allegretto
09. V. Finale: Pesante – Presto
Conductor: Seiji Ozawa
Saito Kinen Orchestra
Venue: Naganoken Matsumoto Bunka Kaikan, Japan (09/09/2004-09/13/2004)

Measuring Up

After fully 50 years, the authoritative Reiner/Chicago performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra finally, arguably, has a rival. Seiji Ozawa’s new rendition is exquisite, a gripping live performance that will strike many listeners as reminiscent of the benchmark Reiner but with unparalleled 21st century sonic fidelity. It is a thoroughly spectacular recording that all Bartokians will want to own.

The clarity, presence, and the dynamic range registered by Ozawa and the sparkling Saito Kinen Orchestra – a festival orchestra named for Saito Hideo, beloved teacher of and inspiration to generations of Japanese musicians – is, to my ears, at an altogether stratospheric level. At times, the pianissimo passages seem even too soft, the fortissimos too hefty. But with Maestro Ozawa’s typical attention to orchestral balance and sharply etched inner voices, the recording is breathtakingly clear. Having led the BSO for so many years, Ozawa understands how to elicit chamber-music-like playing from large ensembles, and the Bartok is of course a perfect vehicle for such effects (and, for its ability to show off an orchestra’s strengths, a frequent showpiece in orchestral competitions).

Consequently, given the nature of Bartok’s composition, the Ozawa-Saito Kinen Concerto is filled with delightful details, and the lapidary details of the beautiful playing are vividly captured. In particular, I found the plaintive solo woodwind parts of the first movement movingly, almost wistfully, rendered. The second movement’s giuoco delle coppie gives each orchestral section ample opportunity to show off its technical fluency. The “interrupted intermezzo” of the fourth movement displays Ozawa’s and the Saito’s supple “swing” (“it don’t mean a thing” if it ain’t there, seriously . . . and Ozawa unfailingly leads at all tempi with a lovely, catching, swinging gait), and Bartok’s variations on the “banal” Shostakovich interruption are played with great verve (even as Bartok has the orchestra horselaugh the Leningrad march unforgivingly with braying brass). The presto finale is, as it must be, a harrowing, barely controlled race to the final thunderous crescendo . . . and to deserved cries of “bravo!” from an appreciative audience.

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste is always a handsome CD bonus and is itself a attractive, if lesser, piece, nicely performed here. But again and again we purchase these Bartok discs for the titanic Concerto, and Ozawa’s performance does not disappoint. My cherished vinyl Reiner Chicago grooved my ears to this music for more than three decades, and I regularly drag it out for a ceremonial listening. (And the Ozawa-Saito Kinen rendition, with roughly the same tempi, comes it at nearly the exact 37 minutes and some seconds.) Now, however, I’ll be hearing it with slightly different ears, newly filled with the vibrant immediacy of Maestro Ozawa and his orchestra.

And I’m now wondering if I can preserve my objectivity – which for all music lovers is disrupted by beloved performances – and make an honest comparison. Does the Reiner (or the Dorati, or the Fricsay) really possess that mystery dollop of “Hungarian-ness” of some other ineffable quality that enables it to convincingly surpass the Saito Kinen Concerto? I’m not sure. But for me, even to raise such questions means that, after a long wait, I’ve found a recording of Bartok’s great concerto that bears comparison to the landmark Reiner of 1956, that affords me a similar awestruck pleasure, and that must stand at or near the top of any ranking of Bartok Concertos.

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