Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin and Dance Suite and Contrasts performed by Philharmonia Voices & Orchestra

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Signum
WORKS: The Miraculous Mandarin; Dance Suite; Contrasts
PERFORMER: Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin), Mark van de Wiel (clarinet), Yefim Bronfman (piano); Philharmonia Voices & Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen


The Miraculous Mandarin’s opening is one of the most edgy things Bartók ever wrote, and needs a correspondingly garish sound. Here there’s warmth where there should be ice, and a sockful of wet sand to the stomach rather than a knife in the ribs. What’s actually happening in the performance is more incisive when you listen hard, and there’s greater detail and clarity in the less heavily scored passages. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s pacing of the music is excellent though, and the many solos are characterful, with some especially good clarinet work. Individual moments come off well – the entrance of the mandarin for example – and, as the work continues, the recording becomes much more alive, if still a little distant.

In the Dance Suite, the homogeneous scoring brings out the best from orchestra, conductor and sound, all foreshadowed in the more obviously balletic parts of the Mandarin, but there could still be more string presence in the tuttis. The rhythmic energy of the faster dances sets the calm and poise of the central Molto tranquillo in relief, in both senses of the word.

Contrasts shows the plus side of live recordings. The sound is resonant, but the detail is all there, and there’s an energy and freedom which takes the work away from its sometimes strait-jacketed performances. The musicians are plainly enjoying themselves, which is maybe why it’s the last item.


Martin Cotton