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Classical

Bartok

Kossuth and Other Works

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by JoAnn Falletta

[Naxos]

3 stars

“Like a fireworks display that goes on too long” is how my colleague Mary Kunz Goldman aptly described this performance of Bela Bartok’s “Kossuth” in Kleinhans Music Hall last October. It’s a negligible hunk of unconvincing ersatz late-Romantic symphonic poetry by Bela Bartok before he actually became Bela Bartok, i.e. the Bartok we know and revere.

Bartok was 22 when “Kossuth” joined the world. The young pianist and fledgling composer was enamored of Liszt, Brahms and especially Richard Strauss at the time. His symphonic poem commemorates the 1848 struggles between the Hungarians and the Austrians which, needless to say, allows Bartok to quote the Haydn melody that became “Deutschland uber alles” with as much hackneyed out of tune menace as a really bad World War II movie score.

With some minor lacunae in the brass, the orchestra generally does well by “Kossuth.” But that doesn’t begin to bring it anywhere near the spectacular level of the BPO’s recent recording of Gliere’s “Ilya Murometz” symphony.

Bartok and Shostakovich are, arguably, the two greatest composers of 20th century modernism, despite both being a small fraction as influential as Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Bartok’s Piano Concertos, string quartets, solo piano works, “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste” are as incomparable and as inventive as modernism ever got.

Departing concertmaster Michael Ludwig lends the disc its major distinction by brilliantly playing one of Bartok’s “Two Portraits.” The orchestra plays Bartok’s Suite No. 1 but despite the fine work by Ludwig and the orchestra in the late-Romantic sonorities Naxos seems to want from it, this music is that of a modernist genius just before genius arrived.

The BPO’s best efforts can’t make this anything other than a play that doesn’t really begin until Act II.

– Jeff Simon