This recording is the first release in Hungaroton's 'Bartok New Series' and is sponsored by the National Cultural Fund as well as other distinguished organisations and individuals.
The artists are the same as those on Hungaroton's only other SACD, an outstanding version of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Dance Suite, that I reviewed in 2004. This time, however, the works have not been taped in the Italian Institute, Budapest, but in the recently opened Palace of Arts, its handsome acoustic providing rather more warmth to the sound, though, perhaps, without the same degree of transparency.
When the 22-year-old Bartok composed Kossuth in 1903, he had become very much under the spell of the music of Richard Strauss, but although Strauss's influence is evident in the orchestration, this music could easily be mistaken for one of Liszt's symphonic poems. The composer prefaced each of its short ten sections with a title and Hungaroton have helpfully provided separate tracks for these. Although Kossuth is no forgotten masterpiece, its neglect seems undeserved, particularly when played as thrillingly as here by Zoltan Kocsis and the excellent Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, whose rich brass section must be singled out for particular praise in this performance.
The Wooden Prince ballet was written shortly after the opera Bluebeard's Castle and intended as the other half of a double bill with that work. Here, in this wonderful score, Bartok's own unique voice is paramount. The music encompasses many moods. It is often lyrical and richly romantic, but also energetic and even, at times, sinister and grotesque (try track 23!). The events of the story and the stage action are vividly depicted in the music, and we are aided in following these by the provision of a full synopsis in the accompanying notes with each episode identified by a separate track on the disc, 14 in all.
Suffice it to say that Kocsis and the Hungarian National Philharmonic play this music to the manner born, while the recording captures both this orchestra's distinctive timbre and the wide dynamics of the score with ease.
The surround channels are quite discreet but do provide the usual benefits to the overall ambience.
With excellent detailed notes and a generous playing time of 71'36″ this SACD deserves wide dissemination, and I hope that we will not have to wait too long for the next release in what promises to be an outstanding series.
Performance: ***** Sonics (MC):****+
(SA-CD.net, February 18, 2007)