BELA BARTOK: Kossuth; Concerto for Orchestra; Romanian Folk Dances – ORF Radio Sym. Orch. Vienna/ Cornelius Meister – RSO/CPO multichannel SACD 777 784-2, 65:27 [3/26/13] [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
I hadn’t expected that this new surround recording of Bartok’s classic Concerto for Orchestra would surpass the definitive and fiery Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony version on RCA Living Stereo SACD—even though that one is for only two front channels. (RCA 82876-61390-2, and the definitive Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is in three-channel form.) And it doesn’t surpass it, being a more polite and not necessarily appropriate treatment of this demanding score that shows off the various sections of the orchestra. But I was surprised to be captivated by the closing filler selection, The Romanian Folk Dances, with which I have been familiar with for many years on violin and piano, sax and piano, and I believe other chamber duos, but I think this is the first time I’ve heard the orchestral version. And it’s a knockout.
Kossuth, the title work on this disc, was written when the composer was in his very early twenties and imbued with a strong Hungarian nationalism feeling. The Hungarian fight for freedom from the domination of the Hapsburg Empire of Austria began in 1848, but it was a failure due to the Austrians allying with Russia, who defeated the Hungarian uprising. Bartok’s first orchestral work, Kossuth, speaks to this patriotic subject. Lajos Kossuth was the Governor-President of Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49, and a bronze bust of him is found in the U.S. Capitol with the inscription: “Father of Hungarian Democracy.”
The work is a symphonic poem in ten parts which describe the Hungarian fight for freedom. Bartok wrote to his mother that the Hungarian language must be propagated in word, deed and speech, yet all the parts of Kossuth are listed in German! Next to the later Concerto for Orchestra, Kossuth seems like a nice idea, but which doesn’t have the strength of similar works such as Smetana’s Ma Vlast. The sonics on all three works is exemplary, especially in 5.0 surround mode.