Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

“It was sort of love at first sight,” Karina Canellakis tells Apple Music Classical about the first time she conducted the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in March 2018. “It’s very rare for that to happen—we just clicked.” Canellakis is now chief conductor of the orchestra, and although they already have a couple of concerto albums to their credit, their new release of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is, she explains, “really the first complete album where our relationship as conductor and orchestra is showcased.” Bartók’s great orchestral work was Canellakis’ choice for the recording, and she is well aware of the difficulties that it poses. “It’s very difficult to conduct, with all kinds of irregular rhythms,” she says. “You have to internalize the meter changes as dance rhythms, not in a technical way, and that takes longer to absorb than, say, a Mozart or Beethoven symphony.” Canellakis’ relationship with the Concerto spans “about 25 years” of study and performances, which, she suggests, makes her well attuned to the music’s problem areas. “The finale, for instance, is so exciting that it lifts you out of your chair with its insanely rowdy amount of energy. It’s difficult not to overdo it by your gestures, your emotions, and your whole presence on the podium,” she says. “But the more that’s going on in the orchestra, the more minimalistic you need to be as a conductor—to be the calm in the middle of the storm.” In some senses, she adds, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is an orchestral showpiece, providing numerous opportunities for solo players and orchestral sections to show their individual brilliance. But she emphasizes that the Concerto is also a deeply autobiographical piece, charting Bartók’s inner feelings at a time of isolation—he emigrated to New York from wartime Hungary in 1940—and serious illness in his life. “There are moments in the Concerto when we see straight into his despair and his longing, and the extreme personal darkness he was stuck in,” suggests Canellakis. “The middle movement, the ‘Elegia,’ is the heart of the piece in that regard, where you hear these very passionate, yearning melodies.” Dark elements also stalk the Four Orchestral Pieces, which Canellakis has selected as a coupling for the Concerto. Completed two decades earlier in 1921, she views the work as anything but “early Bartók,” and hears “a composer who was already great” in the music. Canellakis is delighted with the way the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra has risen to the considerable challenges posed by both works. “They certainly didn’t seem like they were having much difficulty,” she enthuses. “One of the main reasons I love this orchestra is they’re so fast, smart, and agile. They can figure out anything in about a day, so you quickly get to a place where you can just have fun and let it fly.”

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