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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin (Complete Ballet) Sz73 (op.19): Pantomime in One Act (1923) [32:52]
Dance Suite, Sz77 (1923) [17:33]
Hungarian Pictures, Sz97 (1931) [11:47]
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded on 19-20 July 2004 at The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, England
NAXOS 8.557433 [62:12]
also available as SACD 6.110088 and DVD-Audio 5.110088

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Bartók’s remarkable ‘Pantomime in One Act’ is one of the most notable early offspring of Stravinsky’s Sacred du Printemps. It has all of its model’s rhythmic drive, harmonic dissonance, dynamic violence and orchestral extremism. Yet the story-line, in place of Stravinsky’s primaeval Russia, is strictly 20th century and strictly urban. A couple of pimps force a young girl to lure in passers-by so that they can rob them. They proceed with mixed success, until the arrival of a strange oriental figure. The eponymous Mandarin pursues the girl implacably, despite the grievous wounds inflicted by the panicking thugs. When at last the girl capitulates and allows him to embrace her, he dies.

Bartók’s stunning music is most often heard in the shape of the concert suite. So it’s great to welcome another performance of the complete ballet into the catalogue, and, as ever, Marin Alsop has done a fine job. It’s true that the orchestral playing does not match the sheer venomous virtuosity of Solti; but that is a pointless comparison, as Solti and his Chicago forces give us only the suite. The most direct comparison is with Iwan Fisher and the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Philips. Though Alsop and her players cannot quite equal the outstanding excellence of that issue, there is much to recommend in this Naxos version.

Individually, the Bournemouth players are up to their tasks, with the clarinet section in particular contributing greatly to the nauseating seediness projected by the music. Brass play well, though muted trombones are all but inaudible with the presentation of the sinister oriental music associated with the Mandarin (track 4). But the main drawback is the lack of sheer power in the strings; the opening is tame, where the violins need to rip into their instruments to suggest the frenetic activity of the busy city, and a similar problem surfaces in the girl’s dance (which begins with some wonderfully delicate playing) as the Mandarin pursues her.

However, at this price, it is almost churlish to complain at what is in fact a more than acceptable account of the complete ballet. The Bournemouth Symphony Chorus contribute greatly towards the spooky final pages, as the Mandarin dies, and Alsop steers the whole thing with great sureness of touch. Add to that thoroughly idiomatic performances of two of Bartók’s most enjoyable suites, the Dance Suite of 1923 and the Hungarian Pictures of 1931, and you have a valuable and enjoyable disc, well worth a fiver of anyone’s money.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

see also review by Tony Haywood, Michael Cookson and Peter Lawson

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