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also available as CD NAXOS 8.557433
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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin, Sz73 (Op 19, 1926) [32:52]
Dance Suite, Sz77 (1923) [17:33]
Hungarian Pictures, Sz97 (1931) [11:47]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded 19/20 July 2004 at the Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, England
NAXOS 6.110088 [62:12]

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Any CD collector without these pieces on his/her shelves, or anyone who's inadvertently stumbled across this review, or dropped in on it en passant, should be aware of what they're missing. The Miraculous Mandarin is as colourful, atmospheric, barbaric, explosive and virtuosic as the near-contemporary and, curiously, much more popular Rite of Spring, and even more demanding of its performers. The Dance Suite perfectly exemplifies Bartók's identity with and synthesis of primitive folk music and sophisticated 1920s rhythmic and harmonic experiments. In short, no serious-minded music-lover should be without them!

Whether this new Naxos issue is the perfect means of acquainting yourself with these pieces is another matter. As we've come to expect from Alsop, and from the Naxos-Alsop-Bournemouth collaboration in particular, standards are high. The recording on this SACD is weighty, with an impressive ambience; the conducting's compelling; and the orchestral playing polished. But is this good enough?

You need to know that The Miraculous Mandarin was banned on moral grounds after its first performance, and not staged again during Bartók's lifetime. It concerns a prostitute, her pimps and her customers - most notably among which, the mandarin. So, no swans or fairies in this ballet! Just noisy street traffic, a shabby apartment, lurid scenes of sex-selling and attempted killings - by suffocation, stabbing and hanging. In performance (whether in the theatre pit, on the concert stage or in the recording studio) much depends on the expertise of individual players, such as the principal clarinet, on whom Bartók repeatedly relies to do the prostitute's work for him. The un-named Bournemouth player is admirably seductive. A sine qua non in this extraordinarily evocative and pictorially dramatic score is the need for fantastic reserves of power, attack, resilience and stamina; an infinite range of tonal colourings; and a pulse (and I don't mean just tempo) which rises and falls according to the comings and goings of the drama. In particular, the great chase - which ends the concert suite, but which - in the complete ballet, as here - takes us seamlessly into the spooky death-scene - demands tremendous weight and pace: it really is an orchestral marathon!

If you hadn't already heard the Solti, Doráti or Fischer recordings (all Hungarians, note) - or the bruising Abbado, come to think of it - you'd probably find this performance hugely exciting. But my notes include words like 'tame', 'laboured' and 'civilised'. It commands admiration, but my heartbeat seldom raced! There's atmosphere in plenty, but it doesn't excite as it ought. True, the Bournemouth brass are superb - just listen to those hair-raising muted trombones! And Bartók's weird and often horrific colourings are vivid and realistic. But the strings - massed violas kicking off the fugal chase sequence, for example - don't have sufficient body of tone to do the most savage and hysterical music - and there's lots of it - full justice.

The Dance Suite isn't much different. It's very well played (superb bassoon, tuba, and that clarinet again) but the effect is too often studied and detached; hardly the qualities you need for an extrovert piece such as this. Steady tempi - sometimes very steady tempi - and irrational pauses between numbers don't help maintain the temperature, however well co-ordinated and articulated the playing.

I've not mentioned the Hungarian Pictures. These are orchestrations of much earlier piano pieces - some of them little-known, but others - Three Burlesques, Four Dirges and For Children, all dating from 1909-1911 - which have found their way into the repertory. They're nicely done here, with all the poignancy and energy that Bartók's imaginative arrangements dictate.

Naxos will sell thousands of copies of this disc, whatever the reviews say: and I imagine many purchasers won't necessarily share my misgivings. If you want guaranteed freedom from disappointment, and at a similar price, try the Solti/LSO performances, which despite being forty years old will have you on the edge of your seat! Alternatively, the thrilling Solti/Chicago digital remake. Or, if you can afford it, the unbeatable Fischer.

Peter J Lawson

see also review by Michael Cookson and Tony Haywood

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