The Miraculous Mandarin – Suite
Gareth Davies (flute)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel
Reviewed: 9 November, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Xian Zhang, whose conducting career has been going from strength to strength, skilfully avoided any tendency towards sentimentality, and each of the episodes (divided into three movements) depicting the Mermaid’s journey were clearly recognisable. The LSO played with real passion, producing opulent tone and a richness of texture which fully brought out the colours of Zemlinsky’s scoring. The natural use of rubato paid dividends particularly in the final pages representing the Mermaid’s agony in losing the man she loves, tenderly and movingly conveyed by the LSO strings.
The two pieces in the first half were equally impressive. The Suite from Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin was executed with metronomic precision but never seemed cold or clinical; instead Xian Zhang and the LSO captured perfectly an ugly world of seediness. The frenzied world of the urban jungle was appropriately conveyed by shrieking woodwind and rasping brass, the trombone glissandos depicting the prostitute’s first client were deliciously vulgar. The ‘Chase’ was super-fast but control was never relinquished. Bartók’s Suite ends before we get the really grisly stuff; a shame that we were denied that pleasure, just when things were getting really interesting!
Carl Nielsen’s Flute Concerto is from the same year as Mandarin (1926) but inhabits an entirely different sensibility. Gareth Davies was in fine form and the rapport between him and his fellow LSO musicians was obvious. The flute’s passage is often and rudely interrupted by a bass trombone (Paul Milner), the only voice of discontent in an otherwise serene journey. This ping-pong dialogue was one of the highlights in a delightful rendition in which Davies explored every nuance with his sweet tone and nimble playing. Xian Zhang’s dynamic and weighty accompaniment exposed the darker hues in what is ostensibly one of the lighter works of Nielsen’s output.