BARTOK: The Miraculous Mandarin – Complete Ballet; Suite No. 2, Op. 4; Hungarian Peasant Songs – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/ Thomas Dausgaard – Onyx 4213 (2/5/20) 72:49 [Distr. by PIAS] ****:
For many years, I knew Bartok’s 1924 “pantomime grotesque,” The Miraculous Mandarin, from the Op. 19 Suite, as performed by such conductors as Dorati and Martinon. I knew of the historical context of the score, its grim and often violent depiction – in allegorical terms – of the so-called White Terror of Hungary under the domination of Bela Kun. I had read through the plot of Bartok’s scenario, based on the one-act, expressionistic play by Melchior Lengyel, which combines shocking social commentary with exotic and naturalistic effects. But such “academic intellection” lacked the one component I had not known existed, not until circumstance led to my attending a performance, with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra under Isaiah Jackson, in concert (in front of a scrim) with the Claude Kipnis Mime Theatre, of the complete ballet: I bore witness to Bela Bartok, the consummate theatrical dramatist. Bartok had told his wife in a 1918 letter, “It will be hellish music if I succeed.” He did, and I entitled my published review “Cruel Beauty.”
In his brief note accompanying this release (rec. 3-4 March 2017), conductor Thomas Dausgaard notes that Budapest authorities severely censored and cut the score at its 1926 premiere. He has restored the deleted parts so as to realize the music “finally. . .in the shape it was conceived.” The tale itself presents a nameless, hostile city in which a ruthless gang of thugs uses a prostitute to lure potential victims into a den for robbery. Two such victims soon appear: a grubby, lecherous old man, and then a nervous teenager, each of whom provides only temporary satisfaction to the gang. But a mysterious, exotic Mandarin seems the ideal target, until he proves invulnerable to suffocation, stabbing, shooting, and hanging. Only when the seductive woman takes pity on him – drawn by the ghostly hue he emits on the floor where had fallen – does the Mandarin begin to bleed to death, the result of her compassion and sympathy.
The orchestral virtuosity comes forth in the archaic, even tribal, sounds Bartok evokes in a score whose “sacrificial” elements attest to his admiration for Stravinsky’s ritualistic Le Sacre du Printemps, which itself caused a scandal at its premiere. Besides the blaring horn calls of the Mandarin’s arrival, the girl’s seductive dance contains open fifths and modal, agonized harmonies, and pentatonic scales in the course of music that exudes persistent unease and anxiety, even hysteria. The whirling and percussive ostinato in “The Chase” should lock in our comparisons with Stravinsky. The expressionistic aspects of the music, when co-ordinated with Kipnis’ choreography, made this music’s kinship with a film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Metropolis perfectly plain.
The remainder of Dausgaard’s Bartok program (rec. 21 and 30 September 2018) addresses the composer’s earlier work, much of it Romantic and nationalistic in character. The Second Suite (1907-09; rev. 1943) comprises four movements originally conceived as a serenade. The scoring proves lush, almost in a Brahms style, except the tonal language remains firm in its rustic, gypsy, Magyar core. The interplay of strings, winds, and harp at moments recalls both Dvorak and a more contemporary composer of Bartok, Josef Suk. The Allegro Scherzando movement projects something of Lisztian fervor and playful and contrapuntal irony, albeit in Bartok’s modal syntax. The orchestral pedal and brass effects no less nod to Richard Strauss.
A violin solo over soft chords leads to a buffa coda. An extended bass clarinet solo introduces the Andante, until the strings assume the arioso line, occasionally invaded by more disturbed elements. Harp scales and woodwinds introduce an impressionistic sea of sound, and we recall Bartok’s unqualified admiration for Debussy. The outer sections, both marked Comodo, enforce the serenade designation Bartok first intended. The second of these, the last movement, begins with a bassoon in dialogue with high woodwinds. We get repeated notes in the harp and tympani and horns in pedal. A new section becomes more militant, a restrained war chant. The rather tense atmosphere suddenly dissolves into a blissfully serene modulation into the major, the serenade’s hymnal restored.
The years 1914-1918 spared Bartok wartime service, so he used the time to collect national gypsy and Magyar folk tunes, in Romanian and Hungarian styles. He created his 15 short piano pieces, Hungarian Peasant Songs, of which he would later orchestrate nine in 1933. The resultant nine-minute piece offers the Scottish Symphony ample opportunities for color ensemble, sparkling and spicy, all in the rich sonics provided by Producer Andrew Keener with Engineer Simon Eadon.