Desert Island Discs: Eduard van Beinum and the Concertgebouw Orchestra: Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

Decca Recording Details:

  • Grote Zaal, The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
  • 15 and 22 September 1948
  • Producer: Victor Olof
  • Engineer: Kenneth Wilkinson
Concerto for Orchestra

The first American LP issue on London LLP 5. The cover art was not credited and thus the artist is now unknown.

After its first appearance on LP in the early 1950s, Eduard van Beinum and the Concertgebouw’s extraordinary account of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was eclipsed, at least on store shelves, by newer recordings, particularly with the advent of stereo. Its very long absence from the catalog – there was no subsequent Ace of Clubs re-issue, for example – is hard to reconcile given the stunning quality of the performance and the sonics.

During the 1920s and 30s composer Béla Bartók had appeared with the orchestra on several occasions as soloist in his own piano concertos, concerts van Beinum had likely attended. Although his advocacy of modern music lacked the all-encompassing embrace of Stokowski’s repertoire, van Beinum consistently championed the music of his compatriots, both past and present. Among these were Hendrik Andriessen (van Beinum’s favorite Dutch composer), Willem Andriessen, Henk Badings, Alfons Diepenbrock, Lex van Delden, Sem Dresden, Rudolf Escher, Marius Flothuis, Hans Henkemans, Anthon van der Horst, Hans Kox, Guillaume Landré, Wilhlem Pijper, and Matthijs Vermeulen.

As is well known, Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra at New York’s Carnegie Hall on 1 December 1944. Their recording, most recently available on Naxos 8110105, stems from a Symphony Hall broadcast performance made on 30 December 1944, and employing the work’s original ending. Not long after the war, Beinum was sent the score, which made a deep impression on him and to which he devoted serious study. Fritz Reiner, who had arranged for its commission, conducted the second performance and the work’s popularity surged from then on out, accumulating more than 200 performances during the next decade, more than any other contemporary orchestral composition. In 1947, a belated Bartók memorial concert was staged in Amsterdam and van Beinum took this opportunity to introduce the work to local audiences. The following year Beinum and the Concertgebouw would perform the work to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival. No doubt encouraged by that success, Decca decided to set down their electrifying interpretation on disc.

Decca producer Victor Olof: 

“He was meticulous in every detail, especially intonation, and he supervised the turning of the whole orchestra before every master ‘take’ of a recording. Such complete thoroughness I had never met before and it made me realise what a long way other orchestras had to go to reach his high standard.” 

Eduard van Beinum and Victor Olof

Conductor Eduard van Beinum and Decca producer Victor Olof examining a score together in the control room at the Concertgebouw in 1946. During these first sessions, a number of important works were set down, including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique Op. 14 and Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. Note the Decca F.F.R.R. case. At right, the 1948 Edinburgh Festival program booklet. Beinum and the Concertgebouw played Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra to rapturous applause.

The sessions were held in the Grote Zaal of the Concertgebouw on 15 and 22 September 1948, supervised by Victor Olof (producer) and Kenneth Wilkinson (engineer). Decca took advantage of this September sojourn to Holland to make several other recordings with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. On the 13th and 14th, the ill-fated Ossy Renardy recorded Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 77 with conductor Charles Munch, the latter also setting down Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre Op. 40 on the 15th, the same day Beinum began the Bartók. Finally, on the 20th and 21st of September Beinum accompanied Kathleen Long in a recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor K. 491. 

Beinum’s championing of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra helped establish its reputation in Europe, as conductor and orchestra toured with it on more than one occasion. At a June 1949 concert held at the Forum Cinema in Bath, Beinum and the Concertgebouw programmed it alongside Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and Rudolf Escher’s Musique pour L’esprit en deuil, and Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2. Beinum also conducted it with his other orchestra, the London Philharmonic. In May of the same year, in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall that featured Moura Lympany in Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 and the Hungarian March from Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust Op. 24, Beinum and the LPO closed the evening with the Bartók. They reprised it the following season, also at Royal Albert Hall, this time pairing it with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67 and adding the Leonore Overture No. 3 Op. 72a for good measure. 

Upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Amsterdam, Beinum described his role as conductor thus: “…to serve as an intermediary between the listener and the composer, whose musical thoughts must be expressed as purely and honestly as possible, to achieve this through an ideal unity, an ideal co-operation between the intentions of the conductor and the orchestra.” He also described a conductor as “the first among equals” and treated the players with enormous respect, always allowing them a freedom of musical expression while maintaining an overall ensemble playing of breathtaking precision and balance. Musicians adored him and flourished under his direction. In some critical quarters, the Beinum/Bartók Concerto for Orchestra has been thought too elegant and/or urbane. For this listener, their performance is imbued with a powerful refulgence, which is something quite different. The playing of the brass section is simply extraordinary, though all sections of the Concertgebouw shine with spell-binding mastery. 

For the work’s 1944 premiere, the composer wrote: “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one…”. And, in terms of the Beinum/Concertgebouw partnership, this aspect of Bartók masterpiece is here, too, so richly realized. It is a performance of unfailing strength and spirit, shot throught with an inspiring and very human life force. 

When Q Disc issued its 11CD box set “Eduard van Beinum · Concertgebouw Orchestra · The Radio Recordings” in 2000, it gathered together a wealth of great performances, all but one of them “live” – one exception was made: their 1948 Decca studio recording of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. For today’s listener an embarrassment of riches await devotees of this work, abbetted by advances in recording technology and by orchestras that can quite easily cope with the demands placed on them by this virtuoso score. Iván Fischer (Philips), Susanna Mälkki (BIS) and Marin Alsop (Naxos) are but three relatively recent entries in the Bartók discography, not to mention those of a previous generation – e.g., Ormandy (Columbia) and Solti (Decca). However, I would contend that Beinum and the Concertgebouw’s will stand the test of time and remain an instructive and awe-inspiring landmark recording. 

Eduard van Beinum died of a heart attack on 13 April 1959, felled while rehearsing the Concertgebow in the slow movement of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 68. He was buried on the 18th and that evening, a young Bernard Haitink led the Concertgebouw Orkest in a memorial concert that included the final chorus from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion BWV 244 and the Adagio from Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor. Beinum’s legacy lives on. 

More pictures and Bartók Discography in Issue 7 – available in your subscriber account – on page 161.