The Miraculous Mandarin
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 16 October, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
For the second time on this LSO visit, Pierre Boulez took charge of a Discovery Concert. He was as welcoming and enlightening as last week. Once again the composer was Bartók. This time a stage work – the composer’s last – with Boulez focussing on the controversial (for 1924) storyline (prostitutes, murder etc) and its relationship to the music, and how that music is great enough to have a concert-life all its own; indeed Boulez implied that Mandarin is Bartók’s greatest work for orchestra. As Boulez said, normally the Suite is played, which loses the last third (at least) of the score, the part that finds Bartók at his most innovative. Here was the complete ’Pantomime grotesque’, which might always have been the case had Bartók not needed to rescue the music from censored non-performance.
Boulez, with customary insight, revealed the motives attached to characters and showed how the smallest details of staging are reflected in the music – the LSO providing examples. A hat rolling down stairs is meticulously notated in the music; the use of a high bassoon suggests a young boy whose voice has not broken … this is interesting, yet such details had always been fine as pure music. This is a measure of Bartók’s genius; also, that not knowing a plot makes no difference when listening. Yet, conversely, the more learned one is about a work’s background makes the listener the richer. Boulez’s musical probing concentrated on the seduction music – always the clarinets he said to some amusement – and on how Bartók develops and contracts motifs to suit the scenario. Also how Bartók absorbs folk material from his native Hungary and other Eastern countries, and his use of elements from further afield – Mandarin equals China equals the pentatonic scale, and the Viennese waltz becomes a voluptuous foil. The choir adds a specific tone-colour towards the close – it has 19 bars and as Boulez said, Bartók didn’t concern himself with the budget!
Surprisingly, Boulez didn’t mention the extra 30 bars or so that are now re-instated in the score, which occur mostly in the latter stages. Boulez premiered the new critical edition, albeit too late for his most recent recording (DG 447 747-2). (David Robertson has recorded the ’extra-complete’ score on Harmonia Mundi HMC 901777.) Boulez certainly played these bars in the complete performance that followed his talk. It was typically fastidious, the only miscalculation being the organ, which I could neither hear nor feel. Apart from a bass drum/timpani slam that was not together (not the case the second time!) – you have to be this picky when Boulez is involved! – this Mandarin enjoyed a judicious balance between musical articulacy and theatrical import. Does one need any more? Mandarin is repeated tonight, 17th, as part of a mouth-watering programme of Scriabin, Szymanowski and Webern.