Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin; Two Portraits, Op. 5; Divertimento

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: The Miraculous Mandarin; Two Portraits, Op. 5; Divertimento
PERFORMER: Robert Crowley (clarinet), Chantal Juillet (violin)Montreal SO & Chorus/Charles Dutoit
CATALOGUE NO: 436 210-2 DDD
When Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin was first performed it was instantly banned because of its ‘immoral’ scenario, which describes the fate of three men lured by a prostitute into her accomplices’ hiding place. Each one is robbed and thrown out, except for the mysterious mandarin who proves to be too strong for the ruffians. In their panic they try to murder him, but he refuses to die until the prostitute embraces him. It’s a grim story, but most readings try to soften it by dwelling on the few tender moments, such as the waltz between the prostitute and her second client, a shy young student.

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Charles Dutoit will have none of that. His waltz is beautifully shaped, but it is quickly despatched to make way for the onrushing drama, which is conveyed with absolutely crackling intensity. From the opening bars, which portray the hectic bustle of city traffic, there’s no let-up. I’ve never heard the seething energy of the score projected so vividly before, or the mandarin’s chase scene sound quite so demented. The ballet is combined with a deft, well-shaped performance of the Divertimento which stresses its classical serenity, and a fine reading of the Two Portraits. The recording is generally excellent, although the piano is too prominent. Ivan Hewett