Falletta and Buffalo Philharmonic Excel with Early Bartok

A young Bela Bartók wrote he was “roused as by a clap of thunder at the first performance of Also sprach Zarathustra.. The work brought me  to a pitch of enthusiasm. I felt a reaching out to something new. I threw myself into the study of Strauss.”

That inspiration is quite evident in this collection of early orchestral works by Bartok. Kossuth — Symphonic Poem (1903) is deliberately modeled on Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, and conveys the same sense of high drama. Bartok is never far from his Hungarian roots, though, and this saga of Kossuth the Freedom Fighter is infused with the flavor of Hungarian folk song.

Bartók’s Suite No. 1 for Orchestra, Op. 3 (1905) also shows the strong influence of Strauss, and (to my ears) Wagner. Each short movement seems to be an opportunity for Bartok to show off his skill at orchestrating a particular mood. Although the music sounds more like Bartók’s influences than his own voice, it’s still dramatic, tuneful, and entertaining.

The Two Portraits, Op. 5 were completed in 1908. Bartók had composed his first violin concerto for Stefi Geyer, who spurned his advances (but kept the manuscript). These two works for violin and orchestra contain remnants of that concerto, plus other music intended for Geyer. The heartbreak behind their composition comes through in Bartók’s post-romantic music.

Violinist Michael Ludwig performs admirably in the Portraits. He conveys the raw emotion behind the music without making it sound maudlin.

Maestro Falletta isn’t afraid to revel in the richness of this music, and the Buffalo Philharmonic has the chops to pull it off. The warm, full sound of the ensemble is well-suited to young Bartók’s music, bringing out the similarities between the composer and his influences

Bela Bartók: Kossuth; Two Portraits, Op. 5, Suite No. 1, Op. 3
Michael Ludwig, violin; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta, conductor
Naxos 8.573307

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