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19 September 2009

Béla Bartók - 'Divertimento (for strings)' (Bartók Recording Studio)

Classical records pose a problem, alphabetically. Do I file the record under the name of the composer or the name of the conductor? Despite a lifelong interest in classical music (though one marked with a healthy skepticism towards the nauseating attitudes carried by advocates of the genre), I actually don't have that many records so it's never been a big issue. This is conducted by Tibor Serly, and actually the 'Divertimento' is only half of the record with side 2 filled out by a Gesueldo piece (also conducted by Serly) and a Scarlatti sonata conducted by A. Walter Kramer. Which means, there is neither consistency of composer nor of conductor to make the decision for me. Since the record was issued by Bartok's own in-house label, we have a tiebreaker. This comes on that super thick shellac like 78s are pressed to, and the sleeve claims the record is 'non-breakable'. It sounds pretty good, with 'Divertimento''s lively glissandos sounding like lemon juice splattering across glass. The melody is circular and initially doesn't display the usual Magyar folk jams associated with Bartók. The second movement emerges with this really sweet cello riff that meditates for awhile before the screaming violins and violas burst out, clawing for your heart - but only for a second before they are subsumed. It's the ocean at night, raging to a foggy horizon, with occasional bursts of static and white light cutting through. At moments, the same sense of drama that Mahler's later symphonies have is here, though with a very different sonic palette. The recording is crisp and wide - the differences in volume between the quiet and loud parts are so extreme that it's actually a bit difficult to listen to without intense concentration. The third movement is actually on side two and brings in the typically Bartókian circular folk/dance melodies -- not a bad thing as the bass-like cello plucks sounds great on this old bit of wax and you can't always want Béla in minimal/mystic mode. Still, it doesn't feel like it fits with the first two movements and I wonder how much the physical interruption of flipping the record is responsible for this feeling. I guess it's a thematic tie to the Gesueldo piece, which even though it was written 350 years earlier carries a similar sense of motion. The Scarlatti piece is 'whatever' I guess - total filler but it's easy enough to ignore.

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