Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2002 and the recording is still available.
Bela Bartók (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra Sz116 (1943)
The Miraculous Mandarin (complete ballet) Sz 73 (1924)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. 1995, Grotezaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Decca 458 841-2 
Another Universal release which has been in the can for some years and is only just released. I wonder how much more is in this state – Decca, DG, and Philips have all been doing this – it is most strange. At least they don’t do this with the New Year Concert from Vienna – I wonder why?
Still, rather late than never. The Royal Concertgebouw over the last few years has maintained its position among European orchestra ensembles, i.e. in the top three, and Decca has consistently produced absolutely superb recordings of it from its home in Amsterdam. The current issue is no exception, and I would rate these performances as good as any in the catalogue.
Orchestral virtuosity put entirely at the service of the music, and a conductor who understands cross rhythms and how to apply these to the corporate body leave us with a superb modern version of these works, currently dominated by Fritz Reiner on RCA. I wouldn’t rate the current disc above the Reiner performances, but I would rate them as highly, albeit somewhat different in character. The playing of the Royal Concertgebouw is more refined than the earlier disc, as is the recording quality, but the character of the playing is just as good.
Throughout, there are tiny pauses in the flow which add a certain kind of ethnic purity to the playing which I find very attractive.
Bartok wrote his concerto for the Boston Symphony Orchestra under a commission from their then chief conductor Serge Koussevitsky. Bartok was terminally ill at the time and in the midst of severe depression, and the commission was instrumental in making his last two years much more enjoyable. The first performance by Koussevitsky and his Boston Symphony Orchestra was very well received, and the work became established as a central repertoire item very rapidly. Indeed, it was a great pity that the composer did not benefit from the result, as he died less than two years after the first performance.
It was based on folk idioms and harked back to his eastern European upbringing, including as it does, examples of folk music from his homeland. This time, unlike in earlier works, there is a feeling of complete mastery of the form, and a spirit of affirmation which shines out throughout the whole work, including even the sideswipe in the third movement at Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony (No. 7). The only slight concern about this performance is that I would have liked to have heard a little more abandon with the trombone glissandi – here they seem almost too perfect. This is a problem with having an orchestra which plays almost everything they touch with the utmost sophistication.
The disc is filled with the complete ballet to the Miraculous Mandarin. Here we have another superb performance with no reservations at all once again. The orchestra is joined for a short time by the Laurenscantori Choir who acquit themselves perfectly. Once again rhythmic security in the playing is absolutely secure and the standard of the orchestral virtuosity is absolutely staggering. As I listened to this disc, I thought “Here is an orchestra which could play anything.”
Bartok used a sleazy story for his ballet which caused an outcry when it was first produced, causing it to be banned after the first performance. However the moral behind the story is upstanding, but this was missed by the early audiences. Nowadays it is seen for what it is, a masterpiece which was years ahead of its time.
Performance and recording is again absolutely superb, and I can recommend this release with all due enthusiasm. I just can’t see why we have had to wait for so long for it.
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