Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite (CD review)

Also, Brahms:  Symphony No. 1. Jonathan Pasternack, London Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572448.

On this recent Naxos issue, the company oddly couple Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin Suite with Brahms's First Symphony, trying to make a connection between the two works by saying they are both "revolutionary." If you can forget the tenuous relationship and just enjoy the music for itself, you may be better off.

Bela Bartok (1841-1945) premiered his Miraculous Mandarin pantomime (ballet) in 1926 in Cologne, Germany, where the mayor immediately banned it on moral grounds. The story line, you see, involves a pack of hoodlums who force a girl to seduce men up to her apartment, where the gang attempt to rob them. In its purely orchestral treatment as a suite of music, however, shorn of its visuals, it gained popularity. Certainly, the piece is highly descriptive, mimed on stage or not. It's also abrasive, jazzy, mysterious, sinister, and exciting, making for an entertaining twenty minutes or so.

Maestro Jonathan Pasternack and the LSO appear to relish the atmospheric nature of the material and do their best to emphasize the contrasts between the quieter moods and the more clamorous ones. The conductor builds the suspense nicely and then cuts loose with some strong histrionic attacks that can be downright scary. You'll also find elements here of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, particularly toward the end, which can only improve one's appreciation.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, in 1876, and I suppose it really was "revolutionary," at least for him. It was one of the first true symphonies anyone had written in ages, and Brahms patterned it after Beethoven's work, leading waggish critics of the day to dub it Beethoven's Tenth. In part, Brahms's rival, Richard Wagner, had discouraged composers from working in the symphony genre, saying in effect that Beethoven had already done everything that a composer needed to do in the field and that the music drama and symphonic poem were now king. It sort of intimidated Brahms (and others) for many years.

Anyway, Pasternack offers us a thoroughly charming, gentle, though entirely big-scale First Symphony, with practically all the poetry, drama, and thematic evolution from darkness into light one could hope for. The whole thing starts out slowly, almost ponderously, develops incrementally, and ends in exultation and joy. No, Pasternack didn't inspire me the way Klemperer (EMI), Boult (EMI), Abbado (DG), Jochum (EMI), Walter (Sony), Haitink (Philips), Kertesz (Decca), and others do, but it's an acceptable substitute.

Naxos recorded this 2011 release at Abbey Road Studios, London, in July of 2008. The sound is pleasantly warm, soft, and smooth, which works fine in the Brahms, although the Bartok could have used more bite. While there are occasional traces of orchestral depth, the sonics generally content themselves with a wide stereo spread and an easily listenable midrange. Deepest bass and ultimate transparency are only moderate so audiophiles may not be entirely happy with those aspects of the recording, but the timpani in the Brahms tap out gleefully, with solid impact, so all is reasonably well.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa