Four Pieces for Orchestra, Op.12
The Miraculous Mandarin *
Solistes de Lyon Bernard Tétu *
Orchestre National de Lyon
Recorded April (Dance Suite and Four Pieces) & October 2001 at lAuditorium de Lyon, France
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: January 2003
CD No: HARMONIA MUNDI
This disc contains the first recording of a truly complete Miraculous Mandarin. The composer’s son, Peter, has restored thirty missing bars, along with various performance directions, from the autograph score.
Truth to tell, they do not add vitally either to the musical or dramatic import of the ballet; however, devotees of the work will want to hear the extras to music that was described by Bartók in a letter to his publisher as “the best orchestra work I have written so far and it would really be a pity that it be left buried for years”. Indeed the piece did not receive many performances in Bartók’s lifetime, either as a staged pantomime, as it is described, or in its truncated concert version. Fortunately, The Miraculous Mandarin has fared reasonably well on disc, with Boulez’s comparatively recent Chicago version for DG being perhaps the pick of the crop, although his earlier New York recording (Sony) is not without merit.
David Robertson is an intelligent musician who conducts with insight and imagination, and the Lyon Orchestra is more than competent, but the performance is lacking in a feeling of wanton abandon and the lurid, grotesque quality that is so necessary is nearly entirely absent. In short, this is too polite a presentation of this gritty music. The opening, for instance, which should evoke the bustle and noise of a grimy city presents too sanitised an environment, with trombones being courteous rather than aggressive and provocative. Balance between the various sections of the orchestra is fine, but the recording sounds recessed; the piano, which provides characteristic colour to the scoring does not make its presence felt as it should and I would have liked to have heard more of the organ pedals.
In the quieter passages, however, one can admire the excellence of the playing – the clarinets in particular – and Robertson succeeds in creating a suitable sleazy and seductive atmosphere. The Miraculous Mandarin is not all about restraint, however, and I fear that without the requisite lack of inhibition this performance is ruled out of the reckoning, admirable though Robertson’s attention to detail is.
The other works on this disc can suffer similarly from what might be termed a ’soft-grained’ approach. The Dance Suite lacks bite and punch, and is also afflicted by an overly booming bass drum; the rhythmic spring in the faster movements is commendable though. The Four Pieces for Orchestra are impressively given with a real sense of character. The final ’funeral march’ has passion and almost Mahlerian weight.