The Miraculous Mandarin, BB82 (Op.19, 1918-24)
Hungarian Peasant Songs, BB107 (1914-18, orch. 1933)
Suite No.2, BB40 (Op.4, 1905-7, rev. 1943)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard
Recorded 2017 & 2018 at City Halls, Glasgow
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: July 2021
CD No: Onyx 4213
Duration: 73 minutes
Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra renew their welcome survey of Bartók’s orchestral music with this astute juxtaposition of works, written around fifteen years apart, which finds the composer at his most accommodating but also at his most provocative.
As heard in its full ‘pantomime’ form, The Miraculous Mandarin is Bartók’s most visceral score. Dausgaard certainly captures the febrile urban atmosphere of its opening section, then maintains a stealthy grip on those three ‘Decoy Games’ – seductive and assaultive by turns – through to the spine-tingling ‘Entrance of the Mandarin’. The ‘Dance of the Girl’ then builds to a frenzied climax as carries into a propulsive ‘Chase’ sequence, hitting the ground running for the post-suite evoking of the Mandarin’s lurid ‘transfiguration and death’. The orchestral balance is mostly exemplary, even if such accounts as that by Peter Eötvös (Budapest Music Center) convey even more of its intense anguish and unbridled energy. Dausgaard mentions having used ‘‘the recently discovered original score without censored cuts’’, which might be the same as Peter Bartók’s edition of 2000; in any event, this 32-minute reading compares to other recent versions of the complete work, and Andrew Stewart’s note does not mention this issue. Also, why was the wordless vocal contribution not specified?
A bracing interlude now in the Hungarian Peasant Songs, Bartók’s inter-war arrangement of nine from the original fifteen of a wartime piano work – in the process, eliding the ninth and tenth numbers (track 13) for an eight-movement medley, but the rear inlay description is under the illusion Dausgaard has omitted one of the movements in his account (there is no track-listing). That said, his take on this most acerbic of Bartók’s orchestral reworkings is true to its essence – whether in the pathos of the initial ‘Ballad’ or the incisiveness of the ensuing dance tunes.
So, to the ‘dark horse’ among Bartók’s earlier orchestral works. The two Suites are analogous to the Serenades of Brahms: indeed, the Second Suite – conceived for Brahmsian rather than Straussian forces – was initially called a serenade and, in contrast to its ebullient predecessor, is for the greater part understated in manner. Not least the opening Comodo in its interplay of wistful and playful aspects, with the following Allegro (premiered separately in what was the composer’s single public appearance as conductor) a capricious amalgam of dance and fugal elements which anticipates those much more aggressive scherzos to come. If the intermezzo-like Andante evokes a note of uncertainty (despite a haunting initial melody for bass clarinet), this may reflect on Bartók’s decision to leave the work in abeyance prior to his first intensive folksong expedition. Two years on, and the final Comodo exudes an aura permeated by folk music – that the composer was able to integrate it into the foregoing, as is underlined by this perceptive reading, only enhances the attraction of a work such as definitely warrants revival.
In short, those having acquired the first instalment in this series (ONYX4210) need have no qualms as to its successor, even if more thorough booklet notes might have been welcome, and Onyx ought to double-check its sources to avoid errors such as that mentioned above.
Further information at https://onyxclassics.com/release/bartok-the-miraculous-mandarin/