Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is such an effective showcase for the sound of an orchestra — to say nothing of the skill of the conductor — that you can find a wealth of recordings to choose from. I’m here to tell you to pick this one. The great Fritz Reiner, at the helm of the Chicago Symphony at the mid-century height of their powers, created the definitive recording of Bartok’s work, and has been the template for many a version that has come since. The trembling, ominous strings in the opening; the cinematic sweep of the central Elegy; the passionate, almost frenzied finale — all of these show a conductor that’s able to focus in on the finest details without losing sight of the shape of the whole. You may not have wanted to be playing in the orchestra while Reiner was waving his baton — his methods of treating the musicians could charitably be described as “old school” — but he knew how to get the finest from his ensemble. The original recording, from 1955, has since been remastered (at least twice), and still sounds great.
Three years later, Reiner and Chicago recorded Bartok’s dark and brilliant Music For Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and again, turned in a performance that was definitive at the time and has aged extremely well. The opening Andante Tranquillo is none-too-tranquil, and foreshadows the unsettled “night music” of the third movement. As for the finale, let’s just say that Reiner was one conductor who was not afraid of percussion. And with the added room of the CD era, this formidable pairing of masterworks received a colorful attendant, in the form of Bartok’s Hungarian Sketches.