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Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin; Suite No. 2, etc

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard (Onyx)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

The Miraculous Mandarin; Suite No. 2; Hungarian Peasant Songs
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
Onyx ONYX 4213   72:49 mins

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Fasten your seatbelts: if you think the concert suite from The Miraculous Mandarin needs a strong stomach, just try the whole ballet. The suite accounts for only about two thirds of it; Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBCSSO) have turned to the entire work, reconstructed and issued relatively recently, following the gruesome Expressionist story to its explicit conclusion complete with wordless choir. Beside the invigorating Hungarian Peasant Songs (it’s not clear why they recorded eight rather than the available nine) and the relatively early Suite No. 2, which is audibly haunted by the composer’s passion for Strauss, The Miraculous Mandarin seems to occupy a different world – as indeed it did, following World War I and a succession of revolutions.

Dausgaard exhorts the BBCSSO to milk the music for its intensity, conjuring a suitably claustrophobic and lurid setting, against which the murders, seduction and a redemption of sorts feel positively graphic. Dug-in strings capture the dignity in the verbunkos episodes of the songs as well as the opulence of the Suite’s manifold textures. In general the transition moments are well handled and Dausgaard carries us along on the crest of the dramatic wave, whether the overt ballet narrative or the unpredictable nooks and crannies that pepper the Suite.

Occasional minor issues crop up, such as a slight balance problem around the oboe and some possibly exaggerated rubato in the songs, but there’s also a marvellously persuasive bass clarinet and satisfying dollops of élan exactly where it is needed.

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Jessica Duchen