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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin(1927) [19:08]
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, BB114 (1936) [31:01]
Four Orchestral Pieces, op.12, BB64 (1912, orch. 1921) [22:48]
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, 21-22 July 2011 (Four Orchestral Pieces), Harner Hall, The Arts Centre, Melbourne; 4 March 2013 (The Miraculous Mandarin), live, 7-9 March 2013 (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta)
CHANDOS CHSA 5130 [73:19]

Anyone harbouring lingering doubts about the quality of music-making in the Antipodes simply needs to do one thing - listen to this superlative disc. Admittedly the conductor is an Englishman, the increasingly impressive Edward Gardner; but it’s the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra that is the real star here, along with the outstanding sound engineering team. The net result is a thrilling CD - and an enterprising one, too, in that, though two of the items are well established in the Bartók canon, the third, the Four Orchestral Pieces, is a comparative rarity.
Despite the neutral title - with its inevitable reminiscence of works by Second Vienna School composers - the Four Orchestral Pieces form a convincing whole. Together they make up the nearest the composer came to completing a symphony, with the possible exception of the late Concerto for Orchestra. Bartók attempted a symphony in 1903 but only a Scherzo in c major remained. That was until Denijs Dille orchestrated the remaining movements. The resulting work was recorded by Hungaroton in the early 1970s (HCD31884-91).
The Four Pieces were composed in 1912, but not orchestrated until 1921. They occupy a highly significant moment in Bartók’s career, for, as Paul Griffiths explains in his typically concise booklet note, the composer wrote to a friend at this time ‘...I have resigned myself to compose for my writing-desk only’. There is here a fascinating picture of Bartók poised between the Expressionistic world of the opera Bluebeard’s Castle and the Stravinskian dynamism of The Miraculous Mandarin. The opening, Andante tranquillo, owes much to the opera - specifically Bluebeard’s garden behind the fourth of those forbidding doors. Then the jagged brass theme and swirling strings of the Scherzo take us towards the world of the Mandarin, though there are moments of delicacy in the waltz-like interludes.
The keening melody of the Intermezzo took me in a completely different and unexpected direction. The early music of Kurt Weill shares this restless melancholy so tellingly captured by Bartók here; this is hauntingly beautiful music. The Marcia funebre, with its concluding death-rattle, is an uncompromising ending to this strange and impressive work.
The disc begins with an evocation of the turbulent centre of a modern city - the opening bars of The Miraculous Mandarin. This is the ballet that was banned immediately after its Cologne première in 1926. This is thrillingly visceral music and Gardner and his Melbourne orchestra get to grips with its virtuosic demands in an utterly compelling way. The playing is of the highest international standard with a particularly fine contribution from the trombone section. They are put under the spotlight in a potentially uncomfortable way several times during this suite from the ballet. No problem for these guys - their confidence and swagger is exactly what is needed in the frenzy of this amazing score.
At the heart of the disc is a totally convincing performance of one of the very greatest masterpieces of 20th century music: the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936. As with the Four Orchestral Pieces,the rather dry title belies the stupendous feats of the imagination and intellect that permeate every page of this work. Conductor, players and engineers are as one in delivering a recording that allows every detail of the score to come alive. This is a piece where the conductor really earns his fee. Bartók has scrupulously marked every nuance, every technique, every small fluctuation in tempo, and it is clear that Edward Gardner has taken that to heart. It is not enough to ‘obey’ the strictures of the score; one must then realise the world of expression, thought and emotion that lies beneath. This performance achieves all of that.
As time goes on, it seems ever clearer to me that Béla Bartók has a serious claim to be considered the greatest of all 20th century composers; more than that, to be listed amongst the greatest composers of all time. Recordings such as this make that estimation seem all the more valid.
Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Dan Morgan