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Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin, (Complete score) Pantomime in one Act, Sz73, Op.19 (1918-19, orchestrated. 1923, rev. 1924, 1926-31)
Dance Suite, for orchestra Sz77 (1923)
Hungarian Pictures, (a.k.a. Hungarian Sketches) for orchestra, Sz97 (1931)
Orchestral arrangements of five piano works: Nos. 5 and 10 of Ten Easy Pieces, No. 2 of Four Dirges, No. 2 of Three Burlesques, and No. 40 of For Children, Book 1.
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Marin Alsop
rec. The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK, 19-20 July 2004. DDD
NAXOS SACD 6.110088 [61:21]

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The feature work on this Naxos SACD release is the highly notorious pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, composed in 1918, when Bartók was 36 years old. The rich and turbulent score demonstrates Bartók’s very personal musical vocabulary and marked an unsettled and exploratory stage in his development as a composer. The work is best known as an Orchestral Suite in six continuous sections, made up primarily from the first two-thirds of the score. The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, has proved extremely popular with several excellent versions available in the catalogues. For this Naxos SACD release, Maestra Marin Alsop uses the complete version of the orchestral score.

Bartók had little good fortune with this ‘danced-pantomime’, which was one of three works that he composed for the stage. Bartók was unable to stage The Miraculous Mandarin as a new work in his homeland Hungary, so soon after the Great War and the revolutionary conflict. The score had to wait six years for its premičre performance, which finally took place in 1926, in Cologne, Germany. The presentation proved to be a fiasco and the work was removed from the repertoire after one performance. A further staging in Prague had also to be withdrawn. Bartók and his librettist carried out substantial alterations to the score and a revised version was eventually staged in 1945.

Based on Marin Alsop’s spoken commentary contained on the Naxos website, a short synopsis of the plot to the pantomime ballet that was so controversial and considered immoral by many, may prove useful:

The score opens with the violent hustle of urban street life in some dangerous quarter of an unknown City. Three thugs persuade a beautiful prostitute to assist them in a plan and take her to a shabby upstairs flat to ensnare a succession of men, whom they then brutally rob. There are three seduction scenes each displayed by the clarinet, with each scene becoming progressively more musical involved and elaborate. The first man to be lured up is a thin and penniless old man and when they discover that he has no money they throw him down the stairs. They then lure up to the flat a shy young male student. He is extremely awkward and he and the prostitute begin to waltz in 5/4 time. When the thugs discover that he too has no money they also throw him out. The next to be lured up to the flat is the Mandarin, sinister in appearance with stark and staring eyes; who is represented by trombones. The thug’s gesture to the prostitute to do something and the longest and most involved seduction scene ensues. At first the prostitute is repulsed by the Mandarin but then she becomes intrigued. After getting no response from trying to arouse him with her dancing she becomes almost hysterical in her seduction. The Mandarin then grabs her and begins to chase her and she tries to escape. The thugs give chase to the Mandarin to try to kill him. They catch him and try to smother and strangle him. They move away and the Mandarin’s eyes burn through them. They grab him and seize a rusty sword and stab him. The Mandarin sways, staggers and suddenly draws himself up and lunges at the prostitute. They grab him again and tie the lamp chord around his neck but his body begins to glow with an eerie bluish-green light and he remains fixated on the prostitute. ‘Take him down’, she cries. He falls to the floor and pounces on the prostitute. The Mandarin and the prostitute embrace passionately and with his longing fulfilled, his wounds begin to bleed and he dies in an ecstasy of love.

The music to the controversial score of The Miraculous Mandarin, was stern stuff to exhibit on stage and it certainly divided opinion. The magazine Musical America described the score as, “… inspired… its clever combinations of instruments, and wonderful harmonic effects are completely fascinating.” Jeno Szenkar, the Hungarian born conductor of the Cologne premičre described the score as, “…a magnificent work, which later found world-wide acclaim… The piece was very difficult and unusually complicated for an orchestra of that time… At the end of the performance we were confronted with a chorus of whistling and booing.” The Lord Mayor of Cologne asked to see Maestro Szenkar and received him in a cool and reserved manner and then blurted out the bitterest accusation of how it could ever have crossed his mind to perform such a dirty piece and asked for it to be dropped immediately.

I had read two reviews of this Naxos/Alsop recording previous to receiving this review copy. Both reviews were critical of the interpretation by Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. When I played Alsop’s account I was rather satisfied with the overall playing and the interpretation was expressive and colourful and I wondered what all the disparagement was about. A huge mistake on my part. For I had not played for some time, the famous 1963 Kingsway Hall account from Georg Solti and the LSO of The Miraculous Mandarin Suite on Decca Legends 467 686-2. The difference between the two accounts is absolutely immense. Comparing Solti’s version to Alsop’s version was like comparing gladiators fighting the lions in a packed Colosseum at Rome to a Sunday school outing to the seaside. Maestro Solti was cranking up the LSO into a complete frenzy before Alsop’s passengers had even alighted from the charabanc. Solti marvellously realises the overtly harrowing depravity and vicious nature of the score with a tremendous power and dynamism. By comparison Alsop’s account is far too reserved, lacking in the obligatory vigour and bite and is clearly not in the same league. Rather like Alsop is conducting a Dvořák score not one by Bartók. For those who insist on the complete score of The Miraculous Mandarin, perhaps the best alternative is the award-winning recording from Ivan Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Hungarian Radio Choir on Philips 454 430-2.

For many years Bartók’s Dance Suite for orchestra, was one of those works that passed me by until I heard the composer Malcolm Arnold state how impressed he was with the score. That little nudge was just the encouragement that I needed to investigate further and I soon realise that the Dance Suite is a masterwork; that is often overlooked.

The Dance Suite was composed for a music festival held in Budapest in 1923, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the merging of the Hungarian cities of Buda and Pesth. Bartók was mindful of the significance of this historic event and produced a score with pronounced nationalistic leanings. All the themes are Bartók’s own yet they share an unmistakable kinship with Hungarian and Romanian folk idioms. The work which comprises six contrasting sections is played without a break. A recurring refrain (ritornello) serves as a connecting link between the first, second and third dances. Five of the sections represent dances; the first and fourth have an almost Arabic personality, the second and third are said to be Magyar and the fifth Romanian.

This Alsop version of the Dance Suite is lovingly performed, however there is a distinct tentativeness in approach and the rather lacklustre proceedings are lacking in bite and spontaneity. To take the same approach with Bartók’s music as one would, with say, Barber and Dvořák, just does not work. With the Dance Suite it is difficult, not to look any further than the 1965 Kingsway Hall version from Georg Solti and the LSO, on Decca Legends 467 686-2. Solti achieves brilliant playing from the LSO in a performance that is direct, robust and fiery.

The final work on this release is the Hungarian Pictures, for orchestra, from 1931. This score is more commonly known as the Hungarian Sketches (Magyar képek). The folk influences of Bartók’s maturity were to be freely deployed according to the nature of the work at hand. Some of the immediately attractive examples are found in the numerous suites that Bartók orchestrated from earlier piano pieces, perhaps the most famous of these orchestrations being the Mikrokosmos Suite. The Hungarian Pictures or Hungarian Sketches, comprise of five of the piano pieces that Bartók orchestrated in 1931. It must be said that these are slight works that form the least consequential part of Bartók’s output. Alsop, with the assistance of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, seem better suited to these lively and light orchestral pieces.

This SACD release that I played on my ordinary compact disc player is well recorded, sounding clear and natural. The booklet notes are interesting and informative.

Since the critical success of her wonderful series of the complete Samuel Barber orchestral works, the influential Naxos label have been putting the weight of their considerable publicity machine behind the talents of Marin Alsop. Unfortunately Alsop’s recording of the Brahms Symphony No.1 in C minor, with the Academic Festival Overture and Tragic Overture with the LSO, the first in her Naxos cycle of Brahms orchestral works, has received mixed reviews and comes across as rather run-of the-mill compared to the fierce competition available in the catalogues. Naxos should be concerned that Alsop’s Brahms recording and this Bartok release will likely feature on lists of CDs to avoid, rather than as recommendations.

Michael Cookson

see also Review by Tony Haywood




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