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The A-Z of Classical #2: Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra

A twenty-six part series highlighting the works and recordings that every collector needs to own.

(composer) Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

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(title) Concerto for Orchestra (1942–43, revised 1945)

(recommended version) Columbia Masterworks M32132 (quadraphonic vinyl); Dutton Epoch CDLX 7360 (SACD)

Bartók was approaching the end of his life when he composed what would become his most popular work.Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned by composer Serge Koussevitzky’s eponymous Foundation in 1943.

Bartók’s career as a composer was certainly winding down by that time. The bulk of his best known works hail from a relatively short period at the end of the 1920s and then on into the thirties.He was far better known as a pianist.But his passion was collecting and arranging folk music, not only from his native Hungary but throughout central Europe and as far afield as Turkey.

When World War Two broke out and Hungary sided with Germany, an outraged Bartók first arranged for all his manuscripts to be sent out of the country.An avowed anti-fascist, he had already cut off all musical ties with Germany following the rise of Hitler; in 1940, with Hungary growing equally hostile, he too departed for the United States.

He found little interest in his work in his new homeland. Well-known as a pianist and ethnographer, he was all-but unknown as a composer, and he expressed little interest in changing that dour scenario. Instead, he and his wife Ditta applied for, and received, a research fellowship from Columbia University, and threw themselves into the vast catalog of Serbian and Croatian folk songs held in the establishment’s library.

He toured as a pianist, made some recordings for Columbia, and undertook some teaching ventures. Only as his health began to fail (he was later diagnosed with leukemia) did he return to composing.Written in a matter of months in early-mid 1943, Koussevitzky’s commssion was debuted by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in December 1944.Bartók, however, continued to work on the piece. His final revision, extending the finale, was undertaken in February 1945.

Bartók’s death that same September means he did not live to see the full success of his Concerto for Orchestra; nor, in its wake, the western world’s discovery of his earlier work.Today, Bartók is rightly regarded among the most important of all twentieth century composers.In his lifetime, he was among its most obscure.

During its first ten years of life, 1945-1955, audiences around the world were treated to over 200 performances of the Concerto. Koussevitzky himself described it as “the best orchestral piece of the last 25 years,” and it remains difficult to disagree with him.

The first recording of the Concerto appeared in 1946, under the baton of Fritz Reiner (It was Reiner, incidentally, who convinced Koussevitzky to commission Bartók in the first place). By the time Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) set about programming it for the New York Philharmonic’s 1972 season… that is, less than thirty years later… von Karajan, Ormandy, Kubelik, Bertstein and Leinsdorf had all overseen well received recordings.

Boulez had something that all those past interpreters didn’t, however.Columbia Masterworks had recently entered the world of quadraphonic recordings, while Boulez himself had already carried Bartók into that same realm with a 1971 recording of The Miraculous Mandarin - which, very rewardingly, appears alongside the Concerto on the Dutton Epoch SACD.

Boulez was a firm supporter of quadraphonic sound, as the Concerto album’s liner notes (fully reproduced in the SACD booklet) detail.Photos from the six hour recording session at the Grand Ballroom of the Manhattan Center in December 1972 depict Boulez entirely circled by musicians.“He used two scores and two podiums so that he could turn at will, to face woodwinds and brass or spin back to face the strings.Not only was his technical virtuosity enjoyable, but his adaptation to this unique and unfamiliar situation was a truly outstanding achievement.”

Further details of the actual recording follow in the liners; how the mikes were positioned and so forth; while the trickery of the ensuing channelling is drolly detailed by the aside “we await the argument that clarinets and bassoons cannot move around during the course of a performance.Yes they can, on a recording whose sole purpose is to clarify and intensify the musical experience.”

If the manner of the recording was indeed “unique and unfamiliar,” the performance itself is equally so.Boulez’s reputation as a dry, and sometimes unadventurous conductor was forged during his six year tenure with the New York Philharmonic - he cared, it was murmured, more for sheer virtuosity than emotion and feeling, and critics still suggest that performances suffered accordingly.

Not so here.The Concerto has rarely sounded as alive as it does across either the quadraphonic LP (for those who have the necessary set-up) or the Dutton SACD - the listener, like Boulez, is placed in the thick of the action, and the five movements that make up the Concerto are each livid with excitement and action.

Compare Boulez’s “Elegia” with any that preceded him, or the so-playful mid-section of “Finale,” and only Fritz Reiner’s 1955 recording for RCA truly comes close to rivalling it.Yes, maybe Boulez did have the advantage of being able to consciously immerse the listener in the music, whereas Reiner was recording in mono.Four ears are better than one, and all that.But still there is a passion here that Boulez alone drew forth.

For that reason alone, Classical Gas makes no apology for hailing another of Dutton’s releases so soon after the last one.Long established as one of the leading lights in the classical field, the label’s move into SACD recreations of classic quad recordings is without doubt one of the key musical events of years, restoring as it does a wealth of hitherto all-but-lost masterpieces to the marketplace (as well as commissioning fresh ones, as we saw last time).

Indeed, were you to perform an internet search for the best interpretations of this particular piece, you would be very unlikely to find Boulez’s even mentioned - and with the only available pressings draped in humble stereo alone, that is not surprising.Boulez did not simply record the Concerto in quad, he also conceived it in quad.Listened to in any other fashion, of course it is going to feel limited.

But experienced in the manner for which it was intended, Bartók’s best might be Boulez’s best, too.