Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin; Concerto for Orchestra

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: The Miraculous Mandarin; Concerto for Orchestra
PERFORMER: Saint Louis SO & Chorus/Leonard Slatkin
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 61702 2 DDD
These new discs of two of Bartók’s orchestral masterworks are up against stiff competition. The only one which comes near to measuring up to it is the Philharmonia with Wolff. The orchestral sound has a fierce immediacy which pins your ears back.

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Compared to this the Slatkin is strangely bloodless. The orchestra needs to writhe and spit in The Miraculous Mandarin, one of the most blood-curdling scores ever written, but the St Louis SO sounds tame. Similarly in the finale of the Concerto for Orchestra, the gathering tornado in the strings sounds like a mild susurration in the Slatkin version; the Wolff recording, though a touch slower, is more exciting.

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Slatkin’s version bears the original ending to the Concerto as well as Bartók’s second ending, written on Koussevitzky’s advice. One has to ask: was it really worth the bother, when there’s only 11 seconds between them, and Koussevitzky was so obviously right when he said the first ending was too abrupt? Overall, if it’s a choice between these two, the Wolff wins; but it’s still some way behind the Boulez/Chicago SO. Ivan Hewett