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Belá BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra (1945) [38:49]
The Miraculous Mandarin (1919) [31:36]*
Laurenscantorij Rotterdam Choir*,
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. May 1995 and May 1997*, Great Hall, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. DDD
DECCA 458 841-2 [70:54]


Decca has treated these excellent performances shamefully over the years, and it is about time they were reissued.  They were recorded in the mid 1990s but kept on ice until 2001.  They hardly saw the light of day before being deleted and forgotten.  If these were just another set of Bartók performances that would be no great loss, but they are much more than that.  These performances from Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra are among the best that either of these scores has received.  They are also probably the most perfumed, evocative performances of these scores you will hear.  Other accounts of both works may be more incisive and powerful, but none is so beautiful.  If ever a conductor viewed Bartók through the lens of Debussy, Chailly is that conductor.

The subtle colouring and shading of parts at the very opening of the Concerto for Orchestra set the scene for an atmospheric performance.  There is wry humour in the second movement and in the Shostakovich parody of the fourth.  The ghostly third movement is all atmospheric mystery, the Bluebeard references highlighted with a caress.  The finale, though perhaps lacking a little in voltage, is of a piece with the performance as a whole.  Chailly keeps the music moving throughout, most notably in the first and fourth movements, but the pacing always feels natural.

There are, of course, many other excellent performances of this landmark score in the catalogue.  At bargain price alone you can have Mehta’s colourful account on Australian Eloquence or Jansons’ powerhouse recording on EMI Encore.  If you love this piece, though, you will want to hear Chailly.

The complete ballet score of The Miraculous Mandarin also receives a ravishing performance, generously indexed on this disc.  The hard edge that may be expected is missing, but in its place is a sensual simmer that many listeners may find surprising in this piece.  The violence is still there, but clothed in the decadent orchestral colouring of decaying romanticism.  Never has this score seemed so close to Berg’s Lulu.  While it may be expected that this approach would soften the edge of the drama, the beauty only serves to heighten the tragedy.

Again, there are many excellent Mandarins on the market, including Australian Eloquence’s excellent offering with the Vienna Philharmonic under Dohnányi.  Again, Chailly is distinctive and more than worth hearing.

Do I need to mention that the playing of the orchestra is exemplary, from the silky strings, to the colourful winds, to the incisive brass?  Or that the recorded sound is of vintage Decca quality in the world of digital stereo?

Put simply, this is an individual and essential Bartók album.  Order it from Arkiv while you can.
Tim Perry




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