BARTOK: The Miraculous Mandarin (Complete Ballet), Op. 19; Concerto for Orchestra – Seattle Sym./ Seattle Sym. Chorale/ Gerard Schwartz – Naxos 8.571201, 67:56 ****:
Sometime in the early 1980s, I had the good fortune to receive an invitation to Rochester, New York, where the Philharmonic under Isaiah Jackson, in collaboration with the Claude Kipnis Mime Theater, performed Bartok’s 1926 pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin, a political allegory based on the work of Menyhert Lengyel. My review at the time mostly communicated my first appreciation for the visual component of Bartok’s talent for coordinating his brilliant, often dissonantly violent score to the effects on the stage, a true sense of him as a man of the theater.
Three thugs and a girl, their lure, assail passersby and rob them, if they have anything of value. A shabby fellow, the first victim, is discarded. The second, a shy young man, manages an eerie waltz with the girl, but his equally penniless condition finds him rejected. But then, an exotic mandarin appears, and he elicits a sultry and ardent response from the girl, despite her original repugnance. Utilizing insistent counterpoint, Bartok evokes the urgency, physical and avaricious, in both the girl and the aroused mandarin, while the ruffians attempt three times to slay him. Their last attempt, after a thwarted smothering and stabbing, has the mandarin’s hanging from a lamp-post, where his body assumes an unearthly glow, “a greenish blue light,” invoked by the mostly wordless chorus. The girl suddenly responds to the mandarin’s desire, and she embraces him as he bleeds and expires. This music never passed the local censorship of the period; doubtless, its political allusions to a besotted Hungary and its corrupt ministers touched too many rattled nerves. The gruesome equivalent of the Tristan love-death likely proved too potent for most tastes, unless one were inured to such moral vagaries by the work of Frank Wedekind.
The consistent ferocity and audacity of the orchestration makes The Miraculous Mandarin a surefire orchestral spectacle, as well attested by the classic recording of the suite by the Chicago symphony under Jean Martinon. Naxos here reissues the 1 November 1988 inscription by Gerard Schwartz, a powerhouse in its own right, certainly commanding our attention at No. 6, “The girl begins a hesitant dance. . .” with its polyrhythmic and polytonal welter of sound, particularly in Schwartz’s favored brass section. Section 11, in which the terrified goons see the body of the mandarin glow, has the contribution of the Seattle Symphony Chorale to accompany the agonized strings and battery, a new effect to me, since the Rochester Philharmonic experience had not utilized a chorus.
Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (1944) remains among the composer’s last completed compositions, the commission having originated with Serge Koussevitzky. Schwartz (rec. 6, 8 December 1989) takes the five movements at traditional tempi, celebrating Bartok’s rethinking of the concerto grosso style, especially the scherzando second movement’s arrangement of paired instruments. Schwartz keeps a firm clear hand on Bartok’s counterpoint, the alternation and blending of orchestral choirs kept in a fine equilibrium. Perhaps not so purely virtuosic as the Reiner inscription nor as poetically nuanced as that by Fricsay, the Schwartz reading still generates a clarion potency we might recall from Stokowski’s reading in Houston. Schwartz gives good speed to the “Presentation of the couples” movement, the snare drum having provided the initial motor element. The Elegia projects the eerie “night music” sensibility united to Magyar folk-song motifs and scales. The famed Intermezzo interrotto sings bucolically until the gaudy fanfare parodies the Shostakovich Leningrad Symphony with effects most vaudevillian, a virtual “raspberry” tossed off by the brass. For the last movement, Pesante; Presto, Schwartz plays the extended version at full, often contrapuntal, moto perpetuo throttle. A fine testament to a first rate American ensemble and its spirited conductor.
Inspired and Inspiring…