It was unexpected in the concert music world when the announcement came that the Philadelphia Orchestra – formerly the mainstay band for Columbia Masterworks, and one of the top national symphony broadcast series – had after years of being bereft of both, just signed a recording contract with a Finnish classical label. The various great orchestra of our land, having been cut loose by their major American record labels, have struggled to find alternatives. For some it has been to finance their own series of recordings, following the lead of the Louisville Symphony decades ago. In the case of the Philadelphia their new partner is the Ondine label, and it appears they are going to follow the lead of the San Francisco Symphony, London Symphony and others in doing all their recording live during public performances, and issued them on SACD.
This, their first release, was recorded live in Verizon Hall in Philadelphia in May of last year. The program assembled by music director Christoph Eschenbach commemorates the 60th anniversary of the end of WW II. The three composers he selected were all directly or indirectly affected by fascism, the Holocaust and the horror of the war, and the concert was held in reverence to and in memory of these composers.
The concert opened with Bohuslav Martinu’s Memorial to Lidice. This was the small town just west of Prague which was completely obliterated in the space of a few hours by the Nazi troops to avenge the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the cruel regional governor. The moving work opens in two keys simultaneously and later suggests the fate motif of Beethoven’s Fifth. Gideon Klein was one of the many Jewish musicians who passed thru the fateful Terezin concentration camp and died in Auschwitz. While in confinement he wrote a three-movement string trio, which was later arranged for string orchestra by another Czech composer. A Moravian folk song is the basis for the center slow movement.
Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is now more than 60 years old, but according to one authority it is the most recent composition to join the standard symphonic repertory. Bartok moved to the U.S. from his native Hungary in 1940 as a strong antifascist. He was quite ill – his diagnosis of leukemia was kept from him. The offer of a commission from Koussevitsky to write a new work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the composer an improved outlook on life and health for a time. Bartok had spent years in the field with Kodaly and a primitive Edison cylinder machine, recording and transcribing authentic folk songs. His work in this area imbued his compositions with a special Hungarian folk flavor even though he seldom actually quoted the original songs. The Concerto mixes Bach-style fugues with 12-tone atonalities but it always sounds lively and vibrant – partly due to the colorful folk rhythms and sounds. Different sections and solo instruments are given the sonic spotlight in succession, making the work a sort of Hungarian “Instruments of the Orchestra.” While it begins in a stern and serious mood, the final climax for the entire orchestra is an explosive outburst of optimistic defiance.
The Bartok Concerto has received plenty of attention on SACD releases. The most-preferred one for decades has probably been that from one of Bartok’s students in Hungary – Fritz Reiner. Now on a Red Seal/BMG SACD (but only two-channel – not three), it has a clarity and detailed soundstaging not heard before on standard CD. Reiner’s sharply-accented delivery sounds as right today as it did when taped in 1955. Another Hungarian, Zoltan Kocsis, directs the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra in the Concerto on a Hungaroton SACD. His version benefits from the most up-close pickup of the various instrumental sections and soloists. The Philadelphia Orchestra entry is distinguished – as expected – by the wonderfully rich string tone for which the orchestra has long been famous. With the hi-res surround presentation this attribute comes to the fore as never before. However, some listeners might wish for a bit more of the sonic bite (not to be confused with sound bites) common to Reiner’s version. However this disc still makes a most laudable introductory release for the orchestra and its new label Ondine. [By the way, we have reviewed all of the above. I just got in yet another Bartok Concerto from Telarc, which at first hearing strikes me as the most exciting of all three surround versions – the Reiner not being in surround.]
– John Sunier