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Concerto for Orchestra, The Miraculous Mandarin  
Igor STRAVINSKY Petrushka.
1911 Version, Agon, Fireworks  
  Melbourne Symphony Orchestra  Hiroyuki Iwaki 
Recorded Melbourne. April/May 1989 Virgin Classics. VBD 5 61754 2


CD1 [67.22]
(1881 - 1945)
Concerto for Orchestra [36.40]
The Miraculous Mandarin. Op 19 [29.14]
CD2 [59.19]
( 1882 - 1971)
Petrushka. 1911 Version. [33.39]
Agon [21.36]
Fireworks [3.50]

This Virgin double CD has an obvious link between its two components. Each composer was self-exiled, they were contemporaries and each had a distinctive and recognisable personal style. Neither can be said to be truly 'box-office' in the view of the concert going public, but each has left us music that will endure.

The main benefit to the record buyer from these discs will be the Miraculous Mandarin - played in full, not the more usually heard Suite taken from it - and Stravinsky's rarely recorded ballet Agon.

These days the increasing conservatism of the established major record labels, coupled with financial constraints and the enterprise of newer labels brings fresh orchestras to our attention all the time. New to me is the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, though I see that most of the material on this recording was released in 1990. It seems to be a perfectly sound and competent unit, though one wonders to what extent the individual playing skills or the demands of conductor Iwaki decide on interpretation. Does he push hard enough?

In Concerto for Orchestra the performance is safe and civilised but rarely exciting. With Bartok 'safe' is not how one should feel as a listener. The 'couples' of the second movement and the playing of the featured soloists shows that there is clearly a lot of talent in the orchestral ranks. The Allegretto and the Finale are perhaps the pick of the movements with some fine woodwind playing and an impact from the infamous 'Leningrad' raspberry. Just a little more attack and this could have been a performance to remember. The recording - indeed throughout the whole two discs - is excellent with a big, wide-open feel to it.

The Miraculous Mandarin, cause of a scandal because of its 'immorality' and first performed in 1926, when played in full does not suffer the truncated ending the Suite has. It is a savage work, telling the story of the Mandarin, the prostitute and his violent death. It calls for a degree of barbarity in performance which in a staged ballet the scenes on stage would help to illuminate. Its fourteen sections (they average just over two minutes each) are full of short phrased jagged rhythms and music which at times is brutal. Frenetic string passages, heavy chords from the brass, loud timpani, "bluesy" trombones, quieter passages for solo clarinet and oboe, a wordless chorus giving a surreal effect - they're all in there somewhere. On the disc we hear all of these things clearly defined with responsive playing, though it lacks the extra touch of menace that would turn a satisfactory performance into a out and out winner.

Turning to Stravinsky on the second disc, the orchestra seems more at ease. Petrushka - the second of the three great ballets written within a couple of years of each other is difficult to resist when heard. Rhythmically complex, with obvious premonitions of the Rite of Spring its fifteen short sections offer catchy tunes and wit as well as the underlying savagery. Clear articulation is vital in a work as complex as this and without a weak link the players respond well., including a prominently placed but unnamed pianist. The clear recording brings home the scores intricacies and felicities. Recommended.

Agon is a rarely heard ballet score. Written in the mid nineteen-fifties for a company of twelve dancers, the score has no literary programme. Stravinsky had long left behind his big orchestra and big score period. In just over twenty one minutes he writes sixteen episodes for various combinations of the dancers, ending with all twelve on stage in a piece for four trios. The music is trimmed to the bone with strange combinations of xylophone, harp, castanets, mandolin, piano and the more familiar orchestral instruments - often just one per part. Elements of serial and tonal music are mixed in a fascinating hypnotic brew of sounds that I found after an initial listening I simply wanted to play again. Divorced from the stage does it stand up? I think it does?

A vigorous performance of an early Stravinsky piece Fireworks scored for full orchestra and strongly reminiscent of Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice completes the disc.

Overall a value for money pairing which can be recommended.


Harry Downey


Harry Downey

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