Bela BARTOK (1881 - 1945)
Concerto for Orchestra [36.40]
The Miraculous Mandarin. Op 19 [29.14]
Igor STRAVINSKY( 1882 - 1971)
Petrushka. 1911 Version. [33.39]
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
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.
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.