Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Béla Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Divertimento for String Orchestra

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Best-known for his refined performances of Baroque and Classical music, Nikolaus Harnoncourt approaches modernism for the first time in this 2004 CD of Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Divertimento for String Orchestra. Refinement is still Harnoncourt's watchword in Music, for his reading is extremely polished and precise, but so cautious as to make the work seem insipid. Missing are the edginess of the dissonant counterpoint in the opening movement, percussive bite in the second, agitation in the "night music" of the third, and gusto in the fourth, all necessary to any successful performance. Harnoncourt holds the work at arm's length, as if he is examining an interesting object rather than expressing the music's intense emotions; and his hesitant tempi undermine any sense of the work's trajectory. The Divertimento fares much better, for Harnoncourt gives it a brusque treatment that is better suited to Bartók's rustic rhythms, and the strings of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe display an impressive range of timbres and techniques. The recorded sound is strangely muted on Music, but exceptionally good on the Divertimento. A bonus CD is included with this release, featuring excerpts from other Harnoncourt albums, of which Smetana's Vysehrad from Má Vlast is the most substantial and rewarding track.

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