Bartók Orchestral Works, Vol.1
As Mandarins go, they don’t come more miraculous than this – a vivid, no-holds-barred performance that henceforth tops my list of current recommendations. Everything tells – the flavour is right, the pacing too and the sound has a toughened, raw-edged quality that is an essential constituent of Bartok’s tonal language. Although lurid – even seedy – in narrative detail, The Miraculous Mandarin is ultimately a tale of compassion, and Fischer never forgets that fact. His conducting charts a huge dynamic curve from the tensed pp cellos at the start of the first “Decoy Game” (track 20) to a “Chase” (track 24) that knows no sonic bounds: the principal climax is ear-splitting and the savage fugal string entries, truly arco ruvido (“roughly bowed”).
Observable detail – all of it musically significant – occurs virtually by the minute, from the jabbing horns 3'00'' into the first “Decoy Game”, to the usually obscured piano glissandos that help texture the third (track 22). The Mandarin’s appearance at the doorway is shocking yet majestic (Maestoso), the swirling waltz (at 6'25'', track 23) that leads to “The Chase” sports seductive violin portamentos, the choral entry as his body begins to “glow with a greenish light” properly pianissimo and the expressionist-style gestures that accompany his death-throes, judiciously timed. Delicacy trails bullish aggression, forcefulness alternates with an almost graphic suggestiveness – and it’s all there in the full score. Fischer never vulgarizes, brutalizes or overstates the case and, what is most important, he underlines those quickly flickering, folkish elements in Bartok’s musical language (they are everywhere in evidence) that other, less intuitive conductors barely acknowledge.
Which brings me to the happiest aspect of this marvellous disc, namely the strongly individual character of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. How delightful to encounter a group of players who sound as if they have sprung from native soil rather than from some amorphous pool where all orchestras are alike (an increasingly common phenomenon, I’m afraid to say), and never mind about the odd minor imprecision. The strings have a biting edge, the woodwinds, a gipsy-style reediness, while brass and percussion are forceful and incisive but never raucous. All these qualities come into their own in the five folk-music-inspired works included. The Hungarian Peasant Songs are puckish and sonorous by turns, the Hungarian Sketches imaginative tales in sound (Fischer makes dreamy music of “An Evening at the Village” and wholesome good fun of “Slightly Tipsy”) and the popular Romanian Folkdances, lyrical and earthy. The Transylvanian Dances (an ingenious orchestration of the Sonatina for piano) has some village-band style woodwind writing in the first ‘movement’, and the fiery Romanian Dance (one of two) bounces into earshot on timpani, bass-drum and bassoon.
I listened to this disc pacing the room, utterly engrossed and grateful that I was at last hearing Hungarian-grown Bartok that actually sounds Hungarian. Would that other European symphony orchestras would reclaim parallel levels of individuality; but no matter. Fischer’s Budapesters mark an auspicious first step in that particular direction and this superb CD is their finest achievement to date. '