ALBUM TITLE: Bartok
WORKS: The Miraculous Mandarin; Dance Suite; Hungarian Pictures
PERFORMER: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557433
Since its composition 85 years ago, time has hardly dulled The Miraculous Mandarin’s shock value, the exuberant nastiness of its orchestral style. The full ballet, with its jerky, slithering interludes and the hypnotic wordless choir as the Mandarin’s undead body ‘begins to glow with a greenish blue light’ conveys the horrific brilliance of Bartók’s amoral fable even more graphically than the better-known suite. Marin Alsop enters flamboyantly into the baleful spirit of the ballet, with rhythms sharp as a whiplash and a recording that makes beautifully audible each louche glissando, hysterical tremolando or feverish piano arpeggio. The Bournemouth orchestra covers itself in glory by the sheer colourfulness and intensity of its playing.
Compared to this the Hungarian Pictures is light music, the emotionally complex Dance Suite – which receives a very taut and dynamic reading, each of its contrasting sections incisively characterised – a pleasant intermezzo, rather than the major score that it is in its own right. But with this disc it’s obviously the Miraculous Mandarin that concentrates the attention, and certainly if you want a first-rate bargain-price version of this dark masterpiece you need look no further. Alsop does not, for me, quite rival the sheer compelling vividness of Ivan Fischer’s 1998 account with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which would remain my first choice both in performance and recording, but this new Naxos arrival is a formidably accomplished contender. Calum MacDonald