Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Mackerras) - Bratok: Music for Strings

Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Mackerras) – ‘Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Edinburgh, Scotland’s Linn Records has recently been accumulating an impressive catalogue of surround sound recordings, including several gems involving the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, under both their music director Joseph Swensen and their conductor laureate, the venerable Sir Charles Mackerras. This new hybrid CD/Super Audio Compact Disc release brings us Mackerras’ vital freshness in music of Bartók and Kodály in very attractive multichannel sound. With Mackerras’ well-known expertise in Czech music, it is fascinating to hear his take on music from two of Hungary’s finest composers.

Bela Bartok’s ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste’ has probably never been helped out by its rather dry title, but the music is anything but dry. That is not to say that there isn’t an imposing use of intellect in this music, because there certainly is: Everything in the work is developed from the mysterious opening phrase. But Bartók’s skill is dedicated to vivid expressive ends in this music which is in parts rambunctious, in parts joyous, and in parts creepy as all get out. It’s no wonder Stanley Kubrick used it extensively in his film ‘The Shining’. The slow opening movement has a haunting, forlorn feel as it slowly but unstoppably builds to an anguished climax that fails to resolve the tension. The second movement is a rambunctious scherzo that makes dazzling use of the interplay between the separate groups of instruments spread across the stage. Indeed, it proved so memorable that Stravinsky, apparently unintentionally, borrowed a spiky passage for the first movement of his ‘Symphony in Three Movements’. The third movement is “night music”, full of elusive, mysterious nocturnal sounds, leaving the finale to burst out into bright daylight with a lively dance in Bulgarian rhythm.

The benchmark recording for many years has been the early stereo recording by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony in RCA’s “Living Stereo” series. That recording recently made its way to Super Audio Compact Disc. Though I have not yet heard that release, it should turn up very freshly on SACD in three-channel stereo. Reiner kept a tight rein on the first movement, never letting the weave of lines sag or wander aimlessly. His speeds for the two fast movements were quick and fiery, keeping close to the pace advised in the composer’s score (and in places, surpassing it). In 1984, great excitement was created by Antal Doráti’s digital recording of the work on Decca, coupled with a colorful performance of Bartók’s ballet score ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’. At the time, some critics hailed the Decca recording as having the finest sound of any recording ever made. Though it holds up well today, its aggressive, glassy brightness now clearly date the recording to the early 1980’s. Digital recording has quietly evolved since then into something much finer, as the new Mackerras disc handily demonstrates. Doráti’s way with the work was more expansive and discursive than Reiner, with a more genial but less exciting version of the final Allegro molto. Doráti’s highlighting of lines, combined with the bright Decca recording, keeps the night music Adagio’ from sounding ideally evocative.

When Decca recorded the piece in 1992 with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra, they kept this in mind and moved the microphones back to achieve a more atmospheric, evocative sound. Dohnányi paces the slow movements very broadly, allowing them plenty of breathing room to register their moods, but he drives the fast movements more crisply than Doráti, if not quite with the snap of Reiner. Dohnányi is perhaps at his most impressive in the first movement, where he builds up an uncanny weight, drawing depths of sound from the Cleveland Strings. As they did in the earlier Doráti recording, though, Decca’s engineers highlight the timpani artificially, distorting the overall moody feel Dohnányi sought. On the other hand, the slight highlighting of the important bass drum thud at the climax of the first movement allows it to register imposingly, shaking the floor.

Among older recordings, Karajan’s EMI recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is impressive. It doesn’t quite have the sort of paprika that Reiner and Dohnányi provide (after all, Reiner was Hungarian and Dohnányi is the grandson of Hungarian composer Ernц Dohnányi), but Karajan has a high-voltage sweep that is typical of his finest work. Although the stereo spread in that EMI recording may seem exaggerated by modern standards, it is helpful in getting to know the work, as the engineers emphasized the peculiar seating arrangement that Bartók specified in his score: Two identical groups of strings on either side of the stage, with the percussion instruments in the middle. It helps sort out the interplay between the groups. By way of comparison, the Dohnányi recording gains in atmosphere over most others, but loses some of the clarity of back-and-forth interplay between sections. With such spatial issues in mind, this piece is an ideal showpiece for multichannel recording, which is one reason why I’m surprised there aren’t many surround sound versions of it thus far. Fortunately, with the new Mackerras, SACD listeners are well served.

True to form, Mackerras gives us a notably vital ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste’. (Incidentally, this disc bills that last instrument in the title as “celeste”, which is the original French spelling of the name.) His tempos are never pushed in a pressured way, but he has a natural feel for slight adjustments of tempo to match the overall ebb and flow of the music, pushing forward as tension mounts and dropping back for breathing room or to emphasize a point. This makes for possibly the most organically satisfying rendition of the work I’ve ever heard. Reiner, for all his zing, seems a touch stiff in comparison, while Dohnányi comes off as a bit grim. Mackerras is at his finest in the “night music” of the third movement, where he makes sure that the players keep a naturalistic feel for the night sounds Bartók sprinkled liberally throughout the score, using sprung rhythms and sharp accents. Some might find Mackerras a little more romantic in style than what is usually heard in Bartók, but a quick visit to a recording of the composer playing his own piano music demonstrates that Bartók himself conceived of his music as growing out of that tradition, for his own playing is full of spontaneous, romantic touches.

For me, another off-putting Bartók title has always been the ‘Divertimento for Strings’. That offhand title, combined with the fact that the work was written in just fifteen days, seem to promise a lighter work than what Bartók delivered. Commentators, including James Porter in the notes to this Linn Records release, seem to go out of their way trying to point out how the work is much more harmonically straightforward than anything Bartók wrote in his middle period, as if that automatically makes it easily approachable music. It is true that this is less harmonically labyrinthine than the ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste’, but when viewed in terms of its title it seems neither fish nor fowl. It is far darker and questioning than any other “divertimento”, yet it is a conscious attempt by the composer to lighten up at a time (1939) when he was fleeing from his homeland in advance of the Nazi encroachment into Eastern Europe. No wonder the piece has despairing undercurrents lurking beneath the brightly-colored diatonic tunes!

With that dualistic personality, the piece has never settled into a favored place in the orchestral repertory, and no clear performance tradition has emerged. The arguably more mainstream approach is to emphasize the bright elements and more or less underplay the dark shadows that pop up in all the corners of the work. The dominant purveyor of this approach in recent years has been Pierre Boulez, and his Deutsche Grammophon recording with the strings of the Chicago Symphony takes the piece very much at face value. It’s attractively recorded and attractively played, but yet it never gives voice to the layers of subtext that seem implied in the music. After all, what is the extended episode in the middle of the slow movement? It smacks of a funeral march to my ears, but Boulez avoids giving it the expressive weight it calls for. Boulez ultimately comes off as unfocused or perhaps just unconvinced by this odd work.

To hear the ‘Divertimento’ come to life, I turned instead to the recording by Hugh Wolff and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, released on Teldec in the early 1990’s. Wolff sets aside any concept of making the music match the title and instead follows where the music leads, like a walk that starts out in a pleasant meadow but ends up in a strange, ominous landscape. Wolff and his players commit to the rip tides of darker emotions that constantly well up, such as toward the end of the first movement, or in the middle of the second. Thus when Bartók deploys a pizzicato polka near the end of the finale, it lands with great irony: It’s a grimace, acknowledging what the listener thought he would be getting in a work entitled ‘Divertimento’.

Mackerras brings distinguished insight to his performance of the ‘Divertimento’, externally resembling Boulez in his spacious tempos, yet never glossing over the shadows. In Mackerras’ hands, the first movement becomes a very human drama where the composer continually tries to be charming, but keeps getting diverted into darker territories. Perhaps this is ultimately the true “meaning” of Bartók’s ‘Divertimento’: Rather than the listener being “diverted” by charming trifles, we see the plight of a composer trying to connect with the audience in a popular manner, but being diverted into darker regions by his own inspiration. In some sense, that was the battle that Bartók fought in his later years, trying to connect enough with his audience to make a living, and as his health began failing, to leave music which would bring an income to his wife, Ditta, after he was gone. Mackerras starts the second movement with an insistent hush, and if he underplays the march-like characteristics of the following section, he certainly doesn’t stint on its drama. He has the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play the closing pages of the movement for maximum contrast, going from hollow whisper to howl without warning, bringing the movement to more of a sense of conclusion than the rival performances. The distinctive violin solos of Romuald Tecco in Wolff’s recording remain unsurpassed in the finale, but Mackerras’ players provide plenty of character along the way, leading to a suitably coy version of the polka followed by an energetic closing. The SCO players make use of a considerable arsenal of playing techniques throughout this performance, including some very arresting use of vibrato-free playing to give certain passages a chilling edge. For anyone who might raise an eyebrow at having these two Bartók pieces played by the strings of a chamber orchestra, it is worth pointing out that the composer sanctioned the use of smaller forces. In fact, both works were commissioned by and first performed by Paul Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra. The reduced forces help hone a sharply characterized performance, and offer additional benefits in terms of clarity. The only disappointment one might feel is in the first movement of the ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste’, where the reduced string forces could never approximate the substantial Cleveland string sound heard on Dohnányi’s Decca disc.

I returned to the Hugh Wolff disc to compare his Kodály ‘Dances of Galánta’ against Mackerras, but here Mackerras wins, hands down. Wolff is effective in the piece, holding its disparate sections together into one continuous whole, but Mackerras digs more deeply into the Romany (or so-called “Gypsy”) flavors. Mackerras’ tempos are more extreme, with moodier slow sections and more vibrant quick passages. Wolff times out at almost a half minute faster than Mackerras, yet the Mackerras performance seems faster because the intensity is much more vivid. The forward flow comes right out of the notes in Mackerras’ performance, whereas in Wolff the tempo seems imposed upon the players. Perfect pacing is one of those elusive things that no conductor can achieve through mere rehearsal technique, but in some performances, it appears as if by magic. It certainly is the mark of a master at work, and Mackerras has it in spades.

Linn’s recorded sound for this hybrid CD/SACD is up to their usual fine standards. Edinburgh’s Usher Hall doesn’t quite have the glow of the finest halls in the world, but the engineers have achieved a balanced, natural sound that puts the emphasis on the music and the playing. The hall is clear yet warm, and the multichannel imaging gives one a fine sense of the location of the various instrumental groups in the ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste’, including the percussion instruments in the center channel. The rear channels bring the listener into the hall without distraction. It is very enjoyable, though, to hear the sound of the crisp whack of the wood of the bow on strings, bouncing off the back walls when Bartók calls for col legno playing effects. Harp and xylophone likewise cut crisply through the lithe string sound. The percussion registers nicely, so that all the sinks and swells of the timpani can be heard. Arguably, the bass drum at the climax of the first movement of ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste’ doesn’t have as much deep bass impact as would be ideal, but that seems to be a combination of the hall itself, which is a touch bass-light, and the conductor’s restraint. After all, with chamber-sized string forces in a modest-sized hall, a huge wallop on the bass drum would sound pretty crude. The Kodály, unlike the Bartók pieces, was moved to a different venue: Greyfriars Church. This venue doesn’t sound greatly different in size, but it has more of the flavor of stone or concrete reverberation about it, which suits the improvisational sound of the Kodály nicely. The regular CD layer of this hybrid release is crisp and refreshing in sound, making this an attractive release to all classical listeners, not just those with surround sound. The SACD stereo layer increases the starchy realism of the sound, which finally blossoms in the multichannel layer.

In sum, Mackerras brings these works to life like few others. This version of ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste’ has become my new favorite, and the ‘Divertimento’ makes for a strong coupling. Throw in a glorious spin through Kodály’s ‘Dances of Galánta’ and handsome multichannel sound, and this disc becomes a must-have. Highly recommended.