Bartok seemed to be drawn to rather violent themes in the few stage works for which he wrote music. The theme of his opera Bluebeard’s Castle is apparent from the title, and in The Miraculous Mandarin he came up with a work so shocking it wasn’t even tried in Hungary and after its premiere in Cologne was immediately banned on moral grounds. Three ruffians are forcing a girl to have sex with passing men so they can mug them. The third is the exotic mandarin, who refuses to die in three attempts by the ruffians to do him in. Only when the girl embraces him do his wounds bleed and he dies. The work is accurately a pantomime rather than a ballet. The orchestral work is the first two-thirds of the pantomime, full of strange and dissonant sounds and insistent rhythms. There is even a wordless chorus involved towards the conclusion – something I haven’t noted in previous recordings of the work.
The folk-flavored Dance Suite was a commission for the 50th anniversary of the union of Buda and Pest. Its diatonic and very uncomplicated presentations of the folk tunes remind me of Bartok crossed with proper Soviet-era “peoples'” compositions. The Hungarian Pictures are lively orchestral transcriptions of some of the composer’s piano music composed a couple of decades earlier, during the period when he was researching and recording (on cylinders) authentic folk music in the field with Kodaly. Conductor Alsop adds another excellent recording to her growing discography with this surround discing, recorded just last year in the UK.