Bartók
The Miraculous Mandarin, Op.19 – Suite
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Four Orchestral Pieces, Op.12
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Recorded July 2011 and March 2013 in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5130 [CD/SACD]
Duration: 73 minutes
Reviewed: December 2013
Edward Gardner is not only Music Director of English National Opera but he is also building a considerable international reputation and a Chandos catalogue of distinction and variety (Mendelssohn Symphonies and Verdi's Macbeth are waiting in the wings). For his ‘down under’ Bartók, he has in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra an excellent ensemble.
The disc’s ordering is less than satisfactory, though, although one understands why the arresting opening of The Miraculous Mandarin should come first. Better though to begin with the Four Orchestral Pieces (composed in 1912 and orchestrated nearly ten years later). The ‘Preludio’ is impressionistic, this ravishingly beautiful music, languorous and suggestive, wafting into our consciousness through orchestration that is full of light and colour. There is also a sinister undercurrent in evidence, sharing references with The Wooden Prince (ballet) and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (opera). By contrast in the succeeding ‘Scherzo’ a war dance breaks out; heady, fact-paced stuff, and also surreptitious in its pianissimo scampering. The ‘Intermezzo’ confides and yearns, and the closing ‘Funeral March’ is a dark and intense envoi, opening with an emotional outburst and restless thereafter. Gardner inspires a marvellous performance of these Pieces, the Melbourne musicians responding to every detail and demand of a score that tends to be underestimated, although Boulez has been an unstinting champion of it for many years.
Next to the innovations of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), the strings divided into two groups, percussion (including piano, harp and the named instrument) placed centrally. Gardner uses a full string band, building the first movement from nothing to an impassioned climax with a sure hand. In the other slow movement, placed third, its sinisterly nocturnal character is well suggested and then sustained, with sounds exquisite and ominous, and ultimately glowing like a swarm of fireflies at the music’s peak. Both the fast movements are well paced, incisive and precise, although a little more ebullience and temperament – danger – are sometimes needed, as well as crisper-sounding and slightly more prominent timpani at times. Nevertheless, there is much to like and admire here, the playing unfailingly responsive, and I love Gardner’s dug-into tenutos at the very close.
As for The Miraculous Mandarin – the Suite rather than the complete ballet-score that was first staged in 1926 (which means we lose the most hair-raising and eeriest music, but that was Bartók’s decision) – once again one can admire the accuracy and commitment of the performance while wishing for a little more bristle. Nevertheless there is a powerful force at work in the opening bustling street scene before we meet the thugs, the alluring woman and their victims (at the time, the scenario attracted the attention of the censor), not least the Mandarin who refuses to die at their hands until he has embraced the female seducer. The Suite concludes with ‘chase music’ (the robbers pursuing the Mandarin), Gardner driving through it thrillingly having ensured that what leads up to this moment is full of tense theatre and without sagging.
Memory plays a big part in how we listen to music, and it’s impossible for me to forget Rozhdestvensky and Abbado in the Suite (both were extraordinary and very different concert performances). But Gardner has the measure of all the works here, especially Opus 12, and with sound quality that successfully marries warmth, space and clarity, this release can be heartily recommended.

 

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