Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin; Concerto for Orchestra

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: The Miraculous Mandarin; Concerto for Orchestra
PERFORMER: CBSO & Chorus/Simon Rattle
First impressions of this disc are rather dismaying. The opening cello and bass melody of the Concerto for Orchestra is distant and uninvolving, and the marvellous string harmonies which fan out from, and return to a single note can hardly be heard. It doesn’t take long to realise, though, that the fault lies with the recording and not the performances – which are marvellous, though they won’t be to everyone’s taste. The title Concerto for Orchestra implies a virtuoso showpiece, and this work does often receive flashy performances. This performance is certainly a virtuoso one, but it’s a virtuosity of subtle nuance and restrained poetry rather than high-speed excitement (though there’s plenty of that in the last movement). This is an ethereal, almost disembodied reading of the work, almost as if the spirit of Debussy’s Jeux (which the composer said ought to be played by an orchestra ‘without feet’) had worked its way in. Once I’d taken the approach on board, the recording, so disadvantageous at the opening, began to seem entirely right. It gives the performance a porcelain delicacy which certainly makes a startling contrast to the beefy sound of most other recordings. Going from the fine Boulez performance on DG to this recording is like moving from a scene done in rich oils to the same one in watercolours. Rattle’s performance of The Miraculous Mandarin is equally delicate, though once again there’s no lack of power. Like his marvellous recording of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, it reminds you of the sheer beauty to be found in these apparently grim, dark, expressionist works. Ivan Hewett