Music Reviews

Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

A Work that Holds a Special Place

Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” has long been one of my favorite symphonic compositions. I like the music, the story behind the commission, and the many extraordinary recordings available of this remarkable work. Live performances that stick happily in my memory include several with Esa-Pekka Salonen and one conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, all with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall. This is an ensemble that prides itself in extraordinary performances of new music. The unique sound of LA Phil strings may have something to do with this well-deserved reputation.

I have a personal confession to make. Before Yarlung Records was born, we used to gather with friends to listen to multiple recordings of the same work over long multi-course dinners and sometimes with exotic speakers or amplifiers to share with our friends. We haven’t had time to do this since and I miss these evenings. They enabled us to “learn” the works more fully, scores in hand, as we listened to multiple conductors, performers and recording techniques. These evenings have included The Immolation Scene (eight different recordings of that one), Winterreise, Rite of Spring, and so on. We even had one dinner where we listened to superb jazz renditions of Black Coffee, including of course Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Julie London and Ella Fitzgerald.

We never pretended to expertise during these evenings, but we did have heated conversations and a great deal of fun. Our very first of these evenings celebrated Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and if memory serves, we played analog tape, vinyl and digital media with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on RCA Living Stereo from 1956, Eugene Ormandy’s 1964 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra (engineered by Tom Frost and Bejun Mehta of all people), Erich Leinsdorf’s 1962 RCA recording of the Boston Symphony, Charles Dutoit’s Montreal recording in 1988 on London, and best of all, Antal Dorati’s London Symphony Orchestra Mercury recording in 1962 recorded by Wilma Cozart and her husband Robert Fine on 35mm magnetic film. Each of these recordings has something to recommend it, though I remember ending the evening with the firm conviction that Dorati’s rendition with the LSO felt the closest to what Bartok would have wanted and was musically the most satisfying. Additionally, the recording quality of one of Mercury’s finest examples of their craft helped glue us firmly to our seats (remember the Maxell tape advertisements of yesteryear? That’s what it felt like).

Rising to the Occassion

Hunger for new releases of this major work mean that I am intrigued when a label, conductor and orchestra dare to take the challenge. I too recorded this piece years ago in an unreleased test recording with Yarlung’s Special Advisor Sir Neville Marriner. We didn’t rise to the occasion in enough important ways or you would have heard it. The engineer Everett Porter at Pentatone (erstwhile Phillips) rose to the occasion last July recording the young and always thoughtful Karina Canellakis conducting her Radio Filharmonish Orkest, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, in Hilversum. After only two years and a few months at the helm, Maestra Canellakis demonstrates complete ownership of the sound, musical intention and success of this ensemble. I know Karina from her concerts with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra where she always shines, with or without her violin.

Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Bartok to write his Concerto for Orchestra for the Boston Symphony in 1943, when the hospitalised Bartok had only a short time left to live. He was terminally ill with leukemia and Bartok knew it. The composer was too ill to walk during much of the writing, but the commission gave him a much welcome boost of energy and optimism and his health improved a little for the six or seven weeks that he took to complete the first version of the piece. Concerto for Orchestra is not program music (except Bartok’s ubiquitous folk tunes, short quotations from Merry Widow (via Shostakovich 7) in the fourth movement and in a few other contested places) but I think of all music as program music for the unconscious mind, and clearly Bartok’s health and imminent death figure prominently in the drama of the writing (hence Dorati’s representation of rage, determination and defiance).

Taking a different (and effective) tact, Karina guides her orchestra to sneak into the piece, hinting at the anguish, hope and defiance to come. It feels to me as if she conjures a reflection or memory of an earlier frame of mind before acknowledging the bleak present. She doesn’t rush the second section of this first movement where the strings and timpani announce their stentorian theme before the orchestra picks up speed and begins to explore this vast psychological landscape. To my ear, Karina portrays Bartok’s sorrow and acknowledgment that his painful end is near, foreshadowing this upcoming transition. In this orchestra’s hands, our Pentatone recording deftly portrays the violent reality periodically breaking through the philosophical attitude.

Karina’s Elegy, movement 3, may be the most coherent and engaging rendition I have ever heard. Her tempos, slower and more deliberate than many of the best recordings and performances, convey an intuitive sense that reveals the tragedy (as Esa-Pekka used to say) “without wallowing.”

Canellakis summons a lyricism, almost a romanticism, in Bartok’s sometimes tongue-in-cheek 4th movement, a welcome respite.

As Bartok returns to sonata form in movement 5, Karina demonstrates exquisite control of often unwieldy dynamics and welcome speed. As in the most engaging interpretations of this work, the Netherland’s orchestra shines and demonstrates complete virtuosic ability to represent this piece in all its glory. Moreover, Karina highlights the movement’s brief periods of transcendent string writing as respites between the fasten-your-seatbelt overwhelming periods of mayhem and drama.

Pentatone achieves both richness and brilliance in the capture of this performance, and a carefully portrayed soundstage in both stereo and surround sound versions. The sometimes screechy quality to the strings which Bartok clearly wants, comes across as powerful and attention grabbing without being unpleasant to your ear or damaging to your tweeters. The occasional congestion in the album’s capture of bass frequencies is not distracting and may even accentuate the lugubrious moments in a musical and complementary way.

Thank you Karina, Everett, Pentatone and Netherlands Radio Philharmonic for a proud excellent addition to the recorded library of what is perhaps Bartok’s finest work.

Written by

Bob Attiyeh

Bob Attiyeh is Producer and Recording Engineer of Yarlung Records


  1. […] Bob Attiyeh of Yarlung Records has written a penetrating and thoroughly enjoyable review of this album. His insights and commentary go well beyond my ken. All I can say is that I completely agree with his comments. I encourage you to read his full review and discussion posted in the NativeDSD blog HERE. […]

    Pingback by Notes on Recent Finds, No. 9 - Endless Bounty from NativeDSD - Positive Feedback on July 24, 2023 at 20:21
  2. […] article was also published as a blog entry at NativeDSD. Please take a […]

    Pingback by Karina Karina Cannelakis conducts Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra on Pentatone - Yarlung News on August 2, 2023 at 22:39
  3. […] Bob Attiyeh of Yarlung Records has written a penetrating and thoroughly enjoyable review of this album. His insights and commentary go well beyond my ken. All I can say is that I completely agree with his comments. I encourage you to read his full review and discussion posted in the NativeDSD blog HERE. […]

    Pingback by Notes on Recent Finds, No. 9 - Endless Bounty from NativeDSD - NativeDSD Music on August 22, 2023 at 15:05

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