- Pieces (4) for orchestra, Op.12, Sz. 51, BB 64
- Violin Concerto (No. 1), Sz. 36, BB 48a
- Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, Sz. 106, BB 114
Among conductors of the modernist repertoire, Michael Gielen is one of the world's leading interpreters, and his performances of twentieth century music have an assuredness of technique, coherence of thought, and depth of expression that is virtually unsurpassed. This is one reason why his 2006 Hänssler release of Béla Bartók's atmospheric "Four Pieces for orchestra, Op. 12," the passionate "Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. Posth.", and the powerful "Music for strings, percussion, and celesta," has been greeted with excitement and admiration; indeed, the combination of Gielen's authoritative direction with the polished virtuosity of violinist Christian Ostertag, and the committed playing of the SWR-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiberg make this CD an essential item for any Bartók collection. The "Four Pieces" are rich in colorful sonorities and contrasting moods, and these qualities are easy enough to exploit for an appealingly lush performance. But because he maintains a firm rhythmic underpinning throughout, draws out darker and sharper timbres from the orchestra, and keeps it alert and focused, Gielen ensures that the music does not merely devolve into pretty tone-painting. The concerto presents different issues of interpretation that involve the sustained control of the soloist's soaring lines, the proper balance of the orchestra's shifting textures, and the formal shape of the work, which resembles the slow/fast divisions of a rhapsody, but is expanded to much greater development and length. Ostertag's sensitive lyricism in the Andante sostenuto and his charming lilt in the Allegro giocoso make this performance quite enjoyable, and Gielen's relaxed shaping of the accompaniment allows the music to flow naturally and seamlessly without seeming fussy or overworked. But intellectual rigor and a firm sense of abstract design are required in the "Music for strings, percussion, and celesta," and Gielen demonstrates in this magisterial performance both his grasp of the minutest of Bartók's intricate details -- not a note is lost in this transparent reading -- and his attention to the work's overall trajectory. This intensely difficult piece makes great demands of the orchestra's abilities, but the strings acquit themselves with absolute precision, and the percussionists and keyboard players deliver their vivid parts with incisiveness and brilliant color. The reproduction is superb in all three pieces, with only slight level changes to accommodate their different dynamic ranges. This disc, soon to be regarded as a classic, is highly recommended.