Spicy Concertos


World War II certainly left its mark on the music many Central European composers composed during and after the conflict. To Stravinsky's rhythmic vitality and percussive jabs were often added extra layers of chromaticism and contrast that bespoke the political struggles and excesses of nations and their leaders out of balance. This is especially apparent in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's immensely colorful and spicy Concertos For Orchestra composed by Hungary's Béla Bartók (1943) and Poland's Witold Lutoslawski (1954).

Although both men were influenced by the folk melodies of their native lands, Bartók was dealing with the consequences of leaving Hungary for America in order to escape the oppression of the Nazis, and the equally grim realities of poverty and a leukemia diagnosis. Lutoslawski, whose Concerto for Orchestra seems to reflect the influence of Bartók's, was facing possible sanctions if he violated Socialist guidelines for acceptable composition.

Surprisingly, Telarc's air-filled hybrid SACD from Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is one of only two recordings currently in print to take sufficient note of the similarities between the two works to program them both on a single disc. It's a shame, because hearing the two back to back makes for quite a stimulating 72 minutes of listening.

To these ears, Bartók's concerto comes across as the more adventurous of the two. (Lutoslawski's later symphonies were written free of political restraint). Although Bartók's themes were rooted in Hungarian folk melodies, he elevated them to an entirely new level. Faster your seatbelts, and take a listen.