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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No. 1, Sz83 (1926) [22'12]
Piano Concerto No. 2, Sz95 (1930/1) [28'45]
The Miraculous Mandarin, Suite for Orchestra, Sz73 Op.19, (1927) [18'54] a
Zoltan Kocsis (piano)
Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra/György Lehel
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sir Neville Marriner a
No recording details given
CAPRICCIO SACD 71 044 [69'51]


The first of Bartók’s three piano concertos was composed in his full creative maturity in 1926. By emphasising the rhythmic element the concerto radiates a tremendous energy. The rather curt thematic material appears to be almost in contrast with rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity. Bartók wrote that the structure of the score proved difficult for both orchestra and audience alike. Five years later, however, with his Second Concerto, Bartók made the score less challenging for the orchestra with more appealing themes for the audience. First performed in 1933, the work blends popular and light themes with episodes of the same barbaric rhythmic force that characterises other works by Bartók of the same period. In these two piano concertos the soloist Zoltan Kocsis proves himself an intelligent and controlled interpreter. They do not however have the same authority, characterisation and insights of his acclaimed complete set with Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Philips 446 366-2).

The highly notorious and controversial pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, was composed in 1918, when Bartók was 36 years old. The rich and turbulent score demonstrates Bartók’s very personal musical vocabulary and marks an angry and unsettled, exploratory stage in his development. This 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. He then blurted out the bitterest accusation, questioning how it could ever have crossed his mind to perform such a dirty piece. He then asked for it to be dropped immediately.

The Miraculous Mandarin is best known these days as an Orchestral Suite played in six continuous sections, made up primarily from the first two-thirds of the score. In a highly colourful account Marriner conducts with considerable enthusiasm and a high degree of vitality. Especially convincing is the tutti fortissimo section that heralds the appearance of the Mandarin where Marriner’s interpretation is far more chilling than many available versions.

Although I admire this account of the suite, my preferred recording is the famous 1963 Kingsway Hall version from Solti and the LSO (Decca Legends 467 686-2). Maestro Solti certainly cranked-up the LSO into a complete frenzy and with tremendous power and dynamism marvellously realises the overtly harrowing depravity and vicious nature of the score. For those who insist on the complete ballet, perhaps the best alternative is the award-winning recording from Ivan Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Hungarian Radio Choir (Philips 454 430-2).

The sound quality, as played on a normal CD player, is of a high standard as are the interesting and informative liner notes. Strangely the recording dates and locations are omitted.

This is a fine Bartók release from Capriccio, if not the preferred version of each work.

Michael Cookson

see also Review by Colin Clarke








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