Bela Bartok, "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta"; Bohuslav Martinu, Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra; Leos Janacek, "Capriccio" for piano left hand and chamber ensemble. The Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi; the Cleveland Orchestra Quartet (Daniel Majeske and Bernard Goldschmidt, violins; Robert Vernon, viola; Stephen Geber, cello) in the Martinu; Joela Jones, piano (in the Janacek). London 443 173-2.
This superb recording by our finest orchestra of three 20th-century masterpieces contains the first performance of Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" to challenge the supremacy of Fritz Reiner's 1958 account with the Chicago Symphony (RCA Victor 09026-61504-2). Reiner knew Bartok for almost 40 years, and no one performed his music better. But the 1936 "Music for Strings," as Roger Dettmer's excellent program note informs us, did not enter the repertory until shortly before he recorded it. Dohnanyi may have lived longer with the piece.
Certainly, he has new things to say about it. In the opening "Andante tranquillo," Dohnanyi takes the music at a more relaxed tempo and makes its nocturnal quality almost tender.
The biggest difference from Reiner is the second movement. The Chicago version is among the most stunning examples of orchestral virtuosity on disc. Dohnanyi's account is less ferociously brilliant, but he finds a playful sense of humor where Reiner finds savage wit, and this enables him to make more of the movement's fugal episodes.
At first hearing, Martinu's 1931 Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra sounds like one of those manufactured neo-baroque artifacts Stravinsky helped to popularize. But -- while not as great as some of the Czech composer's later works -- it's a first-rate piece, with a climax in the slow movement that is genuinely tremendous.
So is this performance. The collective virtuosity of the solo quartet -- the Cleveland's first-desk players when this recording was made in 1992 -- surpasses that of any other quartet that's tackled the piece, and Dohnanyi and the orchestra play with characteristic conviction and nobility of purpose.
The music of Janacek (1854-1928) is a perpetual embarrassment to those of us who took so long to realize that this Czech composer was the equal of (and perhaps superior to) the much more celebrated Bartok, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. He's also a perpetual inspiration. Of how many people can one say that they didn't get good at what they did until they were past 50 and great at it until they were nearly 70?
The "Capriccio" numbers among the most bizarre cases of instrumentation in the history of Western music: piano for left hand (the work was written for Otakar Hollmann, who had lost his right arm in World War I), piccolo, flute, three trumpets, three trombones and tenor tuba. From this strange palette, Janacek creates a canvas that encompasses an extraordinary range of human feeling. The piano alone -- and in combination with the flute and piccolo -- creates passages of exquisite lyricism; the gruff tones of the lower brass instruments make possible comic rejoinders; and the often grotesque changes of mood suggest an attitude about the destructive effects of war as profound and harrowing as Ravel's "La Valse" or the great symphonies of Shostakovich. The frustration endured by the piano, as its attempts to commence a nostalgic polka are continually interrupted by the march of the winds, is only one of many treasurable moments in a great work.
The performance is superb. Joela Jones plays sensitively, if not as imaginatively as either Andras Schiff (London 443 173-2) or Rudolf Firkusuny (RCA 09026 60781-2). What makes this performance superior to others is Dohnanyi's magnificent and incisive direction and the incomparable brilliance of the Cleveland wind and brass players.
HEAR THE MUSIC
To hear excerpts of Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra performing the second movement of Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.