BARTOK: Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta; The Miraculous Mandarin – London Sym. Orch. /Sir Georg Solti – HDTT [various formats including hi-res PCM & DSD from www.highdeftapetransfers.com] (This one is 192/24-bit FLAC), 45:50 *****:
To adapt a footballing cliché, this is a release of two halves. Sir Georg Solti (1912-1997) was a highly-regarded pianist and conductor, born in Budapest though later a British national. Perhaps best-known today for his pioneering and multi-award-winning stereo recording of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, and for his work at the Chicago Symphony and at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. During his lifetime his recordings were as prolific and as highly-rated as Karajan’s, every new recording an eagerly anticipated event, usually captured in Decca’s acclaimed audiophile sound quality. However, it seems to me his reputation has, in general, slipped in recent years.
The Hungarian Solti made authoritative and sympathetic recordings of music by his compatriots Bartók and Kodály, and then again, recordings of equal calibre of music by a composer of his later adopted nationality, the Englishman, Edward Elgar. Of course, the folk music elements will come easier to one first hearing those in the cradle, but the Solti Elgar sounds to me as authentic as Boult’s or, for that matter, the composer’s own. But that is by the by. Solti’s recording of the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin has appeared many times, recently with most of his recordings of Bartók, Kodály and Weiner collected in a valuable Decca box set. Originating on Decca SXL6111 this was recorded by the team with Erik Smith, Kenneth Wilkinson and James Lock in Kingsway Hall on 17 December 1963 and released the following year. The performance has all the raw energy Solti’s sometimes “explosive” conducting produced; indeed, in one or two places he could have afforded to be even a little more obviously nasty and creepy. With stunningly good sound for the period, the LP has been a sought-after object, as has the Speakers Corner repressing, among the several CD releases.
The other half of the recording has Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, made in the same location a week earlier on 10 December 1963. Apart from an LP reissue, I cannot find any evidence of its appearance on CD, so its transfer from commercial reel is especially welcome in better-than-CD sonics. It seems an odd omission as his earlier 1950s mono recording with the LPO are included in the Decca box mentioned above. Solti’s later recording with the Chicago Symphony, a digital recording from 1989, seems to be favoured for re-release by Decca, and comparing the two shows the marked difference in atmosphere and power, the later recording producing breathtaking strength and ensemble. However, the earlier recording sounds to me just that bit more humane, with eerier elements of nachtmusik and a finely balanced piano, played by Thomas Rajna who has some very clear memories of a tense recording session with “the explosive resident conductor”, the tension palpable in the strength of the playing. The rhythmic components of such importance in Bartók’s music are entirely successful. Alternative performances on record worth considering in addition to these are Fricsay’s in fine mono on DGG and Fritz Reiner’s in stereo on SACD for the latter work, and Ivan Fischer’s in good digital sound with the Budapest Festival Orchestra in both.
HDTT has cast its usual Harry Potter spell on the commercial reel – is it “remasteramus”? – presenting the recording in such satisfying high definition sound, reviewed here as 24-192 FLACs. This is a valuable release, most especially for the Music for Strings, though Decca’s Australian Eloquence will release a CD for the first time during 2016. Meanwhile, take advantage of this big, bold production, the two pieces united as in their first release. Welcome back!