Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin; Dance Suite; Four Orchestral Pieces, Op. 12

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: The Miraculous Mandarin; Dance Suite; Four Orchestral Pieces, Op. 12
PERFORMER: Lyon National Orchestra/David Robertson
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901777
There are two good reasons for investigating this disc apart from its stimulating and substantial programme. First, Bartók enthusiasts will be interested to hear The Miraculous Mandarin, the expressionist pantomime completed in 1924, in a new edition. Bartók’s son Peter has emended and corrected the standard version (published a decade after the composer’s death), relying instead on materials used in early performances. Although interesting, the differences (30 extra bars peppered here and there, along with several retouchings of orchestration) will likely escape the notice of those without access to a score. The greatest concentration of new material comes at the point where the thugs are trying to suffocate their rich Chinese victim. The additional length of this passage makes the unfortunate man’s survival more improbable, and thus seems dramatically effective if not musically necessary.

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The disc’s other strength is that David Robertson and the Lyon National Orchestra offer an unexpected but rewarding perspective on Bartók’s expressive world. The orchestra’s soft-grained timbre yields sober but satisfying performances that possess gravity, humanity and a tinge of melancholy (especially in the Dance Suite and Four Orchestral Pieces) – qualities not usually apparent in more overtly characterised accounts. Harmonia Mundi’s attractively transparent recorded sound is occasionally compromised when instruments that should be prominent – the trombone at the beginning of Miraculous Mandarin, and the violas and cellos that launch the Mandarin’s feverish fugal chase of the maiden – do not register with enough presence. One minor inconvenience: the main work occupies a single 33-minute track. David Breckbill