Bartók
Music for strings, percussion and celesta
Divertimento for strings
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Recorded in June 2000 (Divertimento) and June 2001 in Stefaniensaal, Graz, Austria
CD No: RCA RED SEAL
82876 59326 2
Duration: 61 minutes
Reviewed: June 2004
It is invariably Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s lot that he carries a burden of expectation – that of presenting particular repertoire in a way not previously heard; not through being controversial for its own sake but because of going back to basics and debunking said music of so-called tradition, which can sometimes be a euphemism for bad habits.
While this may be especially relevant for baroque and classical repertoire, and for ear-syringing purposes in Brahms and Dvořák in which details glisten afresh, the opportunities to spring-clean may seem less so in twentieth-century music, especially with a composer as precise as Bartók.
This is to some extent true with the interpretations here. Every bar of both scores is looked at afresh, and one imagines that both are relatively new to Harnoncourt, but despite the authority with which the texts are read, assimilated and prepared, the final results are somewhat too calculating to fully capture the music’s essence. The somewhat bleached string-sound for MSPC’s first movement palls a little, although Harnoncourt charts the crescendo and clarifies the parts with certainty, and the second movement, for all the textural illumination, lacks that crucial last degree of animation.
The third movement falls short of wonderment, the colours rather grey, although the more spectral middle is airily presented and there’s genuine emotional charge to the fallout following the swirling climax; and the nostalgic eruption (here from 3’50”) in the finale has a dulcet quality that is wholly affecting. But, the opening of this movement is all rather genteel, pedantic even; and Harnoncourt holds too emphatically the ultimate bars; that said, most conductors tend to through them away – Dohnányi (Decca) is exemplary at this point, and Sándor Végh (Orfeo) throughout has all the earthiness and vitality that rather eludes Harnoncourt at times.
The Divertimento begins in bracing fashion, accents are spat out, and the string-sound is lean. Yet the wistful insertions seem no more than contrasting notes on the page, and the crunching dissonance appears as an add-on effect. While one can admire the intensity and precision, and the balance afforded by having antiphonal violins, there is something too objective about the argument here (save the final measures that suddenly open out).
The Adagio is appropriately bleached and searing, Harnoncourt laying bare black depths and cries from hell; and his handling of the more urbane, even jocular finale has a virility difficult to resist and a moving eloquence in the solo-violin-led slower music. Nobody quite matches, although Harnoncourt comes close, the witty sentiments that Daniel Barenboim finds in the pizzicato episode towards the end. (As far as I know, Barenboim’s EMI recording with the English Chamber Orchestra has never reached CD and, thus, remains a treasured LP.)
The RCA sound quality is generally excellent, certainly well balanced and detail-studded if a bit strident in fortissimos (especially in the Divertimento). An audience is present, possibly a group of supporters there to make an occasion; there is no applause but there is between-movement shuffling and ‘audience ambience’ following each work. Reservations and insights counter one another here; but students of the composer and these works in particular needn’t hesitate to acquire this release.

 

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