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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin (complete ballet) (1926)
Dance Suite (1923)
Hungarian Pictures (1931)
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded at the Lighthouse Concert Hall, Poole, Dorset, July 2004
NAXOS 8.557433 [62í12]

That The Miraculous Mandarin is one of Bartókís greatest scores there can be no doubt. Yes, it does betray post-Rite of Spring elements, particularly the reliance on rhythm and brutal dissonances, but then how many great scores of the 1920s donít owe some debt to Stravinsky? But Bartók goes a stage further, showing us a modern, complex world that exudes Expressionist anxiety and an almost suffocating sexual tension.

The score has brought out the best in a host of conductors and orchestras over the years, so the recorded competition is fierce. Iím particularly gladdened to see how many opt to record the full ballet, including wordless chorus and gentler, ethereal ending, and it makes for a much more satisfying whole, especially on disc. Marin Alsopís credentials in music where rhythm dominates are impressive, particularly in native American scores (Bernstein, Adams, Rouse) but I have to report that in Bartók the results are, alas, disappointing.

My first impression of Mandarinís opening, with its savage depiction of an alienating cityscape of glaring lights and blaring klaxons, was that she plays too safe with the swirling strings and jagged, syncopated brass. The recording is a mite backwardly balanced for me, but most of the problem must be with the conductor. Turning immediately to my chief comparisons, Abbado and the LSO (DG) and Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Philips) is like entering a different world. The way the animalistic trombone fanfares are rasped out, the tightness of the string ostinatos, the characterisation of those oily, slithering clarinet solos that precede each chase, all are in a different league. Alsop does certainly bring out the pathos in the score (the final embrace is heart-rending) and she teases out comparisons with Debussy here and there, especially the kaleidoscopic colours of Jeux. But ultimately it all sounds too tame for this piece. Abbadoís panic-ridden rendition has the 1982 LSO playing for their lives, and Hungarian-born Fischer and his Budapest band play, quite literally, as to the manner born. The woodwind have an authentic Gypsy-style reediness, the brass and percussion a forceful, visceral impact that never become raucous. The Philips recording is absolutely in the demonstration category, and overall this version, which won a Gramophone Award in 1998, must take the palm as the most miraculous of current mandarins, albeit at full price.

The Dance Suite suffers in much the same way. Here the folksong and peasant dance origins are at their strongest, but Alsopís rather stodgy, leaden approach does nothing to make you feel this. Again, she is best in the more tender episodes, such as the molto tranquillo section (track 16), but a comparison with my benchmark, Solti and the Chicago SO, show just what is missing. Itís not just sheer speed (Solti shaves nearly two minutes off Alsopís 17í33) but bite and attack. Yes, Solti can be a shade too brutal and hard driven in some passages, but the earthiness and energy carry the day, easily being preferable to Alsopís softer-grained reading. In fact, Soltiís Bartók collection, of which this Dance Suite forms a part, is now on a budget Double Decca and makes an ideal starting point for this composer.

The Hungarian Pictures make a reasonable filler (Fischer includes them, there called Hungarian Sketches, as well as three other orchestrated folk collections) but will hardly be the reason for buying the disc. It is cheap, but here is a case where paying the extra will be worthwhile.

Tony Haywood

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