BRITTEN: Suite from the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, Op. 57. McPHEE: Tabuh-Tabuhan. Balinese Ceremonial Music (trans. McPhee).
Benjamin Britten/Colin McPhee, pianists; BBC Symphony Orch/Leonard Slatkin, cond.
CHANDOS CHSA 5017 (5 channel) TT: 77:40
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MOZART: Requiem in D minor, K. 626
Christine Schäfer, soprano; Bernarda Fink, alto; Kurt Streit, tenor; Gerald Finley, bass; Arnold Schoenberg Chor; Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt, cond.
BMG DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 58705 (5 channel) TT: 50:15
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BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra. Dance Suite. Hungarian Peasant Songs.
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orch/Zoltan Kocsis, cond.
HUNGAROTON HSACD 32187 (5.1 channel) TT: 62:31
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The Chandos Britten/McPhee disk is a logical coupling in many ways. Benjamin Britten and Colin McPhee met in 1939 on Long Island and became close friends. McPhee already had spent six years in Bali studying native folk traditions and had written an impressive reference book on the subject. He transcribed some authentic Balinese pieces including three scored for two pianos that were published as Balinese Ceremonial Music and played in concert in New York by McPhee and Britten in 1940, the time this recording of the seven-minute work was made. McPhee's best known work is Tabuh-Tabuhan written in 1936, a toccata for orchestra and two pianos plus a wide assortment of keyboard instruments and percussion along with authentic Balinese gongs and cymbals. For the most part it is a subtle three-movement work, famous to collectors from the 1956 Mercury recording with Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra (available on Mercury 434 310), a more energetic reading than Slatkin's. Britten's full-length ballet The Prince of the Pagodas premiered in 1957 to mixed reviews and didn't show up again until the Royal Ballet revival of 1989. Decca had Decca recorded the entire work with the composer conducting the year of the premiere (once available on London 421 855, which also included Diversions with Julius Katchen as soloist, again with Britten on the podium). The Pagodas suite heard here was compiled by Britten scholars Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke and includes a wide section of dances as well as the gamelan-inspired music representing Pagoda land. The BBC orchestra plays this music expertly and there currently is no other recording of the complete ballet. Chandos' engineering clearly captures the delicate tintinnabulations of the exotic instruments and is a model of clarity—but I miss the spectacular show-off engineering of the Decca release which surely is worthy of reissue.

Harnoncourt's new recording of Mozart's Requiem is extraordinary. As Benjamin Cunnar-Cohrs points out in his CD notes, there is no such thing as the "Mozart Requiem." Mozart died before it was completed and the last 247 bars were added by Süssmayer, supposedly following instructions from Mozart on his death-bed. In this recording, Harnoncourt uses the Süssmayer completion in the "new critical edition by Franz Beyer, which carefully corrects technical mistakes made by Süssmayer, but leaves the compositional structure untouched." No matter, what is heard here is an incredibly dyanmic performance of what we have come to know and love as the "Mozart Requiem" performed by a first-class quartet of soloists and the superb Arnold Schoenberg Chorus, with magnificant playing from Concentus Musicus under Harnoncourt's dynamic direction. The surround sound well captures the ambience of the performances which were recorded November 27-December 1, 2003 in the Musikvereinsaal. An extraordinary release, although it's unfortunate there isn't more music on the disk.

Zoltán Kocsis has already made countless successful recordings including Bartók's complete solo piano music and concertos, concertos of Bach, Mozart and all of Rachmaninoff's (available in a Philips Duo set), and now we have this superb recording in which he conducts the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra in three works of Bartók. Instantly one can tell that Kocsis has distinctive ideas about these familiar scores, and, doubtless through many hours of rehearsal has communicated them to the fine players of the Hungarian orchestra. No question that these are among the finest recordings of the three works, standing up well to the best of competing versions of the Concerto—including Chailly, Haitink and Reiner. Beautiful, natural surround sound on this first Hungaroton SACD, with the orchestra in front, warm ambient sound from other channels. Highly recommended on all counts.

R.E.B. (August 2004)

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