Atonal Folklore

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The Concerto for Orchestra, Bela Bartok’s last completed work, is a towering monument of 20th century music. Composed in 1943, it gives each individual section its own solo, much in the way of a Baroque concertante, so that every instrument is in dialogue with another. Unlike his complex, atonal string quartets and piano and violin concertos, the Concerto for Orchestra is recognized as his most accessible piece.

The piece is a crash course in styles, from the folk songs Bartok recorded in the field (he’s sometimes called the father of ethnomusicology) to serialism and a smattering of jazzy chords. And there’s even a brutal parody of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (“Leningrad”) thrown in, which Bartok considered pure orotundity.

Leopold Stokowski gives a solid performance leading the HSO, with moments of sheer exhilaration in the string section, and again in the finale. Peculiar cover art, too, from the Everest label.

Everybody has their favorite performance of the piece on vinyl (and there’s a horde to choose from). Some prefer Bernstein’s muscleman approach, while others go for Reiner’s straightforward conducting of the Chicago Symphony. But Solti and the LSO, in my opinion, outpaces them all in their immersive powerful recording for Decca.

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