0 of 5 stars

Four Pieces for Orchestra, Op.12
Violin Concerto No.1
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

Christian Ostertag (violin)

SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Michael Gielen

Recorded in the Konzerthaus, Freiburg in 2003 and 2004

Reviewed by: Andrew Achenbach

Reviewed: August 2006
Duration: 79 minutes

Michael Gielen’s unassumingly authoritative Bartókian instincts were there for all to hear in his sterling contribution to Christian Tetzlaff’s notable 1990 Virgin Classics recording of the Second Violin Concerto. That masterpiece’s two-movement predecessor of 1907-8 forms the centrepiece of this well-filled new anthology in which Gielen teams up with another gifted young German fiddler by the name of Christian.

Born in Karlsruhe in 1963 to German and Hungarian parents and a protégé of Péter Eötvös, Christian Ostertag proves a most accomplished performer, sweet and pure of tone in the ravishing opening Andante sostenuto, and brimful of fiery temperament in the volatile Allegro giocoso. Gielen and his admirable SWR band tender characteristically watchful, humane support. The recording, too, is outstandingly vivid, the balance most truthfully judged.

It’s followed by a rewarding version of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Not only does the orchestral playing boast terrific application and impressive co-ordination, Gielen really does get under the skin of this music, flexing its expressive and intellectual sinew to consistently stimulating and moving effect (the diatonic return of the opening material in the finale conveys real emotional clout), yet scrupulously alive to the myriad details in Bartók’s fastidious canvas. Above all, it feels like a genuine, breathing performance, always growing, purposeful and involving. A handful of (non-distracting) platform noises suggest a live provenance but this is not vouchsafed in the booklet.

Bartok’s intoxicating Opus 12 with its extravagant, headily colourful instrumentation (quadruple woodwind, four trumpets doubling four cornets, two harps and piano four-hands) never fails to ‘wow’ and that’s the case here too. Gielen’s antiphonally divided violins are a boon, as is the exceptionally full-bodied sound (bass drum registering with exciting physical impact). Perhaps Boulez and the Chicago Symphony on DG generate just a tad more in the way of giddy thrust and jaw-dropping spectacle in the scary helter-skelter ride of ‘Scherzo’, but the glowering ‘Marche funèbre’ is properly unnerving, and Gielen sees to it that Bartók’s translucent textures (with their generous washes of harp, celesta and piano) shimmer and glow.

The disc as a whole earns a strong recommendation; certainly fans of composer and conductor alike will need no further prompting from me.

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