Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Suite: The Miraculous Mandarin (1927) [21:17]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [47:12]
London Symphony Orchestra/Jonathan Pasternack
rec. 16-17 July 2008, Abbey Road Studios, London
NAXOS 8.572448 [68:29]
I must confess that I’m struggling a little to see the raison d’être behind this disc. The two pieces would sit somewhat uneasily beside each other in a concert programme, even if separated, perhaps, by a concerto and certainly by an interval. Yoked together on a single CD the juxtaposition seems even more strange. In fact, it’s a perplexing partnership.
On the back of the jewel case some prominence is given to the fact that the recordings were made using all-digital microphones supplied by Sennheiser and by Neumann, Berlin. Perhaps this is the basis of this project though I have to say that while the sound quality is satisfactory it doesn’t strike me as at all exceptional.
The other possibility - and probably the more likely one - is that the disc is intended to showcase the talent of the American conductor, Jonathan Pasternack. His pedigree includes studying with both Neeme Järvi and David Zinman. His conducting seems to me to be efficient but, being honest, I don’t think he produces results that are anything out of the ordinary.
Bartók’s score is a lurid one, as befits the subject matter. The composer conjures up some eerie, not to say spooky, sounds from the orchestra at times. Other passages are brutal and savage. The first couple of times that I listened to the disc I thought the performance was quite a decent one. But then, remembering other performances that I’ve heard in the past I began to think that this newcomer was rather lacking in electricity. At random I took down from my shelves Sir Simon Rattle’s 1993 recording, made in Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Admittedly this is a full price disc - or at least it was when I bought it. Also, it presents the complete ballet rather than the suite offered by Pasternak but one can compare passages that occur in both performances. In just the first couple of pages the differences are stark. Pasternak and the LSO are good enough but turn to Rattle and you hear far more savagery and definition in the playing - and EMI’s sound is infinitely superior. Later on, when the Mandarin enters, it’s the menacing power of the CBSO brass that really grabs the listener’s attention more than the efforts of the LSO. And as for the passage where the tramps chase the Mandarin I’m afraid the LSO performance pales by comparison with the drive and sheer visceral excitement generated by Rattle and the CBSO. When you factor in also that Rattle and his Birmingham band are so much more effective and atmospheric in Bartók’s chillingly eerie passages then I’m afraid it’s a case of the best being the enemy of the good.
The Brahms symphony receives a decent performance and, once again, I enjoyed it the first time through. It’s well played - though, let’s be honest, the LSO could play this score in their sleep - and there’s some good solo work in the second movement but once I’d heard it a couple of times I came to the conclusion that the performance never set my pulse racing in the way that several others have in the past.
Probably anyone making an impulse purchase of this CD will be satisfied but, for both works, there are other accounts out there in a very competitive market that have greater claims on collector’s attentions. I wonder if Jonathan Pasternak might have been better advised to record some less familiar repertoire which would have filled more of a need. As it is, I’m reluctantly forced to conclude that this was a disc that didn’t need to be made.
see also review by William Hedley
An odd pairing of works in performances that, while decent enough, don’t really compete with the best.