Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19, BB 82 (1927) [19:08]
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, BB 114 (1936) [31:01]
Four Orchestral Pieces, Op. 12, BB 64 (1912, orch. 1921) [22:48]
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 21-22 July 2011, Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia (Orchestral); 4 March 2013 (Mandarin); 7-9, 12 March 2013 (Celesta), Hamer Hall, The Arts Centre, Melbourne.
Hybrid SACD, stereo and multi-channel. Reviewed in SACD stereo
CHANDOS CHSA5130 [73:19]

What a well-chosen programme this is, and given the presence of Edward Gardner what an enticing prospect it is. Recently appointed the Bergen Philharmonic’s next principal conductor goes from strength to strength. In particular I much admired his Chandos recording of Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater with the BBCSO and Chorus (review). The competition in that repertoire is rather less fierce than it is with these Bartók pieces. I’ve long cherished the Abbado/LSO and Boulez/Chicago accounts of The Miraculous Mandarin (both on DG). When it comes to the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra (Philips) and Boulez (DG) are both decent modern accounts. As for the Four Orchestral Pieces I rather like Leon Botstein and the LPO’s memorably full-blooded version (Telarc).
Bartók’s ballet pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin - a louche and violent tale of greed, lust and the supernatural - caused something of a scandal at its Cologne premiere in 1926; predictably Boulez and his chromium-plated Chicagoans - aided by a wide-ranging and suitably forceful recording - are intoxicating in the 20-minute suite. Abbado is no less gripping; in fact he scores over Boulez in that he builds and maintains dramatic tension without being quite so flamboyant. Not only that, he makes more of the score’s detail and shy interludes. The LSO, well recorded, are in fine form too.
So, what about Gardner? Well, for a start his recording is by far the best one here; full, deep and tonally sophisticated - the Chandos sound is a real treat. The leer and sneer of Bartók’s brass has never been so well caught, and his distinctive sound-world emerges with startling clarity and impact. Most important, Gardner makes a virtue of being less febrile. Such a tumescent score hardly needs viagra in its already overheated bloodstream. Yet he still manages to project the slaver and sleaze of the piece.
The Melbourne band - last heard in Wigglesworth’s somewhat disappointing Mahler Tenth - are very polished indeed. They are unanimous and passionate, and Gardner teases out Bartók’s vivid colours and bold, expressionist contrasts like no other. In short this suite is so much more than a shabby little shocker. Its now subtle, now searing, tensions show the composer at his considerable best. That’s why Gardner’s Mandarin goes straight to the top of my list of preferred versions. If you want to hear a highly virtuosic ensemble showing off - and why not - try Boulez, but if Bartók is your priority Gardner’s the one to go for.
After that hurly burly the chamber-like delicacy and introspection at the start of this Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta - recorded in concert - comes as something of a relief. Poised, articulate and well shaped this is a very fine reading indeed. The sound is a little dry, but it’s always explicit; also instruments are rather close - the timps especially so - which is no bad thing in the spirited dialogue of the Allegro. Everyone is immaculately turned out, and the string players dazzle with their dancing pizzicati. It’s a veritable kaleidoscope of sound that gives way to a strange, unsettled Adagio with the timp glissandi superbly done. The Allegro molto has plenty of vitality.
Any caveats? Not really, although the up-close balance did become irksome on repeated hearing. Under Boulez the sense of a large chamber orchestra at work is even more pronounced. As for his recording it may breathe more easily but inner detail isn’t as forensic as it is with Gardner. Furthermore, the Frenchman imbues the score with a rigour that, while admirable, makes it seem a trifle arid at times. Ozawa - on one of Philips’ few SACDs - has very decent sound and pliant playing. For all that he doesn’t bring out the subtle quirks of the piece as well as Gardner does.
The well-filled Chandos disc ends with a fair account of the Four Orchestral Pieces. Botstein and the LPO are rhythmically seductive and dynamically more extreme – especially in the wild, tramping Scherzo – but Gardner still ekes out more detail than most. For once, though, the recording has a fierce treble - most noticeable in the tuttis. His Intermezzo isn’t as lush or as lightly sprung as Botstein’s. The funeral march - an odd creation, even by Bartók’s standards - is perhaps the least satisfying portion of this performance, not least because its hectoring tuttis and rhetorical gestures make it sound surprisingly ill-tempered.
Gardner’s Mandarin strikes a good balance between intensity and insight. I found myself marvelling at Bartók’s sure sense of dramatic thrust and scale. This performance of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta also benefits from Gardner’s gently probing approach; he makes a decent job of the Four Orchestral Pieces but for greater animation and interest Botstein is to be preferred. The Chandos sound is rather variable too, with the Mandarin given the finest recording here … or anywhere else, for that matter. Paul Griffiths’ liner-notes are as succinct as ever.
A magnificent Mandarin; inspiration tends to dip thereafter.
Dan Morgan

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