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]

American conductor Jonathan Pasternack counts Neeme Järvi and Jorma Panula amongst his teachers. At the 2002 Cadaqués Orchestra International Conducting Competition he was awarded second prize, runner-up to one Vasily Petrenko. The list of ensembles he has conducted is both long and impressive, but this would appear to be his first CD.

The coupling is a strange one, and would be, I think, even as a concert programme. Still, we are not obliged to listen to the CD in one sitting, so where’s the harm? The recording took place almost three years ago, but the disc has only just been released. The box carries the logos of both Sennheiser and Neumann, along with the announcement that “all digital microphones” provided by the two companies were used. We can thus expect impressive sound, and so it is, with a depth of field, richness and analytical quality to be envied, though you will need to turn the volume up to achieve the necessary impact. There are helpful essays on the Bartók by Richard Whitehouse and on the Brahms by Robert Pascall.

The London Symphony Orchestra is one the world’s greatest ensembles, so you would expect this performance of The Miraculous Mandarin to be brilliantly played, and so it is. Ensemble is tight, and the wind solos in the central tableaux are splendidly done. One wonders, then, why so much of the performance engenders so little excitement. The rapid triple-time rhythms of the opening tableau, though brilliantly executed, do not propel the music as they should, and the succeeding scenes are sadly lacking in seductiveness. Things take a turn for the better with the appearance of the Mandarin himself, splendidly painted by Bartók and brilliantly executed by the LSO brass here. The playing becomes more convincing – I’m tempted to think, more convinced – as the Girl dances for him, and the performance as a whole catches fire for parts of the final chase. But go back to Antal Dorati with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a 1954 performance on Mercury to hear what this music sounds like at white heat, and there have been many performances almost as gripping in more recent years.

Conducting is a mysterious activity. Who can satisfactorily explain how a great conductor communicates with the orchestra? Just as pertinent, when the message doesn’t pass, who can explain why? The opening bars of the Brahms made so little impression in this performance that I immediately stopped the disc and listened to a few other versions. A live performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov (BBC Music Magazine) had far more impact, as did Marin Alsop with the London Philharmonic, in a thoroughly recommendable performance also on Naxos. And moving on to Jochum (1953, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, DG) at a considerably slower tempo, and especially Ančerl (1962, Czech Philharmonic, Supraphon) one hears a sense of direction, engagement, purpose and passion in the rising violin line which is all but absent here. This first movement is remarkably varied in atmosphere and emotion. Exciting, seductive, mysterious, it’s all in there somewhere, but only rarely is it brought out successfully by these performers. In the slow movement, the accompaniment is competent and well supports the beautifully played oboe solo, but it doesn’t swell, only fitfully becoming something more than mere accompaniment. Leader Carmine Lauri is rightly identified as the soloist in this movement, and again, the playing is wonderful, except that the emotional temperature seems low. The third movement begins after too short a pause, and I’m bound to wonder if it has ever sounded more pedestrian, more uncommitted than this. The astonishing opening to the finale provoked similar thoughts, and the remainder of the movement, difficult to fuse into a coherent whole even for the greatest interpreters, rather falls apart, with the most wonderful moments passing for very little.

The cruel fact is that the London Symphony Orchestra must have played Brahms 1 so many times that it takes a huge personality and a very special occasion to draw out of them their astonishing best. I’m sorry not to be more welcoming to this disc, but sadly, this seems not to have been the occasion.

William Hedley

A young American conductor with one of the world’s finest orchestras fails to convince in Bartók and Brahms.