Album review: Spellbinding close for the Helsinki Philharmonic and Mälkki Bartók cycle on BIS

Closing the wonderful three-disc Bartók series by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and their Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki on BIS Records, the final album installment brings together outstanding readings of two of the composer’s most symphonic scores, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Concerto for Orchestra (1943).

Caught on disc in studio settings at the orchestra’s Helsinki Music Centre home, the new album is also a case in point of top-class orchestral recording and engineering. In terms of clarity, focus and dynamics, the stellar performances are beautifully served on disc, resulting in one of the finest outings available for Bartók’s two orchestral masterstrokes.

Although it is disputable to what extent the term symphonic can be applied to the Bartók oeuvre in general and these two works in particular, it should be noted, that the composer himself initially intended to title his 1943 Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky commission as Symphony, but his publisher eventually persuaded him to settle upon calling it Concerto for Orchestra instead. The music was quick to take shape; Bartók penned the entire score between 15 August and 8 October 1943, with a twenty-four-bar extension added into the last movement closing, written in March 1945, following the 1 December 1944 Boston world premiere.

Cast in five movements, each rooted in solid formal logic, Concerto for Orchestra is certainly symphonic in terms of scope and conception, although Bartók’s musical design may not follow the traditional symphonic scheme. The overall architecture follows an ABCBA plan, with extended Introduction and Finale framing two shorter, rhythmically pronounced movements of witty playfulness and irony, as well as the gorgeously dark-hued central Elegy, which harks back to the shadowy realm of Bluebeard’s Castle (1911/1912/1917/1921) in guises of quotation and allusion alike.

In terms of tempi, Mälkki’s reading comes close to Bartók’s suggested timings included in the score, especially in the first and third movements, both of which clock right on the mark. Of course, the questions regarding to tempi are often multi-layered, but such dutiful timings may still be considered noteworthy withing the overall scheme of the performance.

Be it the immaculate design of the opening movement’s sounding architecture or the poignant renditions of the second and the fourth, not to mention the gripping atmosphere of the Elegy of the contrapuntal feast of the Finale, this is Concerto for Orchestra to cherish.

The Andante non troppo opening yields to a terrific build-up, with wonderful interplay between the strings and the flutes setting the stage for the full orchestra in the movement proper. The seemingly paradoxical combination of quirkiness and buoyancy of Giuco delle coppie is marvellously realized, with the orchestral textures emerging from the side-drum pattern in quasi-improvisatory manner. Similarly, there is splendid disjointed continuity in the Intermezzo interrotto fourth movement, paving the way for the rousing wildness of the fugal Finale, clad in exemplary clarity.

Yet, it is the enthralling sonic rendition of those vivid dreamscapes and ghoulish nightmares of the Elegy that come off as the absolute highlight of the performance. Seldom in its recorded history has the movement made such an impact as on the new BIS disc. An ideal combination of sonic logic and gripping musical narrative, clad in pristine clarity, the performance is one simply spellbinding, one to become deeply etched in memory.

Much of the same virtues are manifested throughout the exquisite performance of the album opener, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Commissioned by Paul Sacher for the tenth anniversary concert of his Basler Kammerorchester, Bartók wrote the four-movement, twenty-five-minute piece in just two months, dating his completed autograph full score on 7 September 1936. The premiere performance on 21 January 1937 was a rousing success, and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta received more than fifty outings during its first year around.

Bartók’s unusual scoring features string orchestra, divided into two equal groups, with piano, celesta, harp and percussion seated between them in mid-stage. The Andante tranquillo opening movement is conceived as a dazzlingly chromatic fugue, whereas the second movement comes off as a furious scherzo, cast in sonata form. The arch-like Adagio third movement unravels in some alien realm, with its slowly moving string textures couloured by various strikingly ingenious percussion effects. Rounding off Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the Allegro molto closing movement is a virtuoso dance-piece, full of whirl and bite.

The recorded performance by Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic finds solid balance between Bartók’s neoclassical and modernist tendencies, yielding to a magnificently translucent reading of the score. The rhythmic patterns are ever well executed, without compromising their inherent, untamed energy. Bartók’s contrapuntal designs are given wondrously layered workout in the outer movements, whereas the two inner movements bear fascinating contrasts in terms of rhythm, texture and ambience.

Although Mälkki’s chosen tempi are somewhat slower than the ones indicated by Bartók in the score, it should be noted that the same applies to almost every recording of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, with Ferenc Fricsay’s 1956 take with the RIAS-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin perhaps following to the composer’s suggestions the most dutifully. Yet again, not too much should be made of the these differences between marked and realized tempi. What counts, in the end, is the overall character of each movement. In this respect, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic are simply amazing.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Susanna Mälkki, conductor

Béla Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106 (1936)

Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116 (1943)

Recorded at the Helsinki Music Centre on 30 May – 1 June 2018 (Sz. 116) and 27-31 May 2019 (Sz. 106)

BIS Records, BIS-2378 (2021), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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