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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin (1918-19) [33:54]
Dance Suite (1923) [17:28]
Contrasts (1938) [16:59]
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin)
Mark van de Wiel (clarinet)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London January 27, 2011 (Mandarin), October 27, 2011

There was a time when it was easy to get recordings of the Miraculous Mandarin Suite, but not of the complete ballet. Not any more; there are terrific versions on CD conducted by Boulez, Slatkin, Eotvos, Alsop and Fischer, to name but a few. So this recording by Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Philharmonia now enters a crowded market-place.

However, this disc’s programme makes it particularly interesting; the Mandarin is joined by the Dance Suite and Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano. The Dance Suite is an obvious choice, but Contrasts less so, being chamber music, though no less characteristic of its composer than the other works. Each of the three movements has the title of a Hungarian dance. The first, Verbunkos, (‘recruitment dance’) is quite slow, with a wry French Overture feel in its dotted rhythms, much as you find in Stravinsky’s neo-Classical works. However, Neo-Classical this is not, except in the sense of Bartók’s disciplined approach to musical form. The middle movement, Pihen (‘Relaxation’) is the slowest, and, despite its title, the most tense, with elements of Bartók’s nocturnal style. All the way through this movement, even more than the others, the composer makes very explicit the contrasts, as in the work’s title, not only in the timbres of the three instruments, but also in the precise contribution they make to this haunting music.

At the beginning of the finale, Sebes (‘Fast Dance’), you might be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, as the composer asks for the same ‘scordatura’ or special tuning of the violin strings that you find in the earlier work. The rather diabolic quality thus created is maintained throughout, and there are some strange squawks and shrieks that undoubtedly reinforce the perception that still persists to this day that Bartók is a ‘difficult’ and unapproachably ‘modern’ composer. Tiresome – but in a performance as fine and stylish as this, surely the sheer joyful inventiveness of the music easily wins over the listener. Few music-lovers will need introducing to Uzbek-born pianist Yefim Bronfman; his superb partners are Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay and Mark van de Wiel, respectively joint leader and principal clarinettist of the Philharmonia. I still treasure the old Pauk/Kovács/Frankl version of this piece from the late 1950s, but that is not easily available other than as a download; this brilliant performance will do very nicely.

The Dance Suite of 1923 seems to capture the essence of Bartók thrillingly in its five short movements. And I have to say that Esa-Pekka Salonen draws the most stunning playing from the Philharmonia, beautifully captured by the engineers. Some may find the wind instruments a shade too ‘spotlit’; it’s a matter of taste, and for me, it simply adds to the brilliance of the orchestral sound. Salonen is so imaginative, driving the music mercilessly in the quicker movements, with the Allegro molto second movement re-capturing the feverish world of The Miraculous Mandarin; but he is also outstanding in moments like the ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt’ sweetness at the end of the first movement.
Moving back to the beginning of the disc, and to the largest work on it, The Miraculous Mandarin exhibits the same virtues as the Dance Suite, and is wildly exciting, as this astonishingly daring score should be. The opening, depicting the hectic life and heavy traffic of a big city, has a crackling energy, and throughout the work, the trombone section, in particular, have a field-day! I am hugely impressed, too, with the viola section, who give a superb account of their agonised cantilena as the body of the murdered mandarin begins to glow mysteriously. This is a ‘live’ recording, and has all the electricity that can bring, without the potential down-sides – unless you’re worried by a few quietly rustling page-turns.

This is quite an issue; unusual programming, top-class recording – and magnificent musicianship on display in all three of these major twentieth-century masterworks.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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