Bartók (The) Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19
Marin Alsop’s Miraculous Mandarin can claim among its virtues stealth, colour and energy. In the famous and furious fugato passage where three tramps are in hot pursuit of the Mandarin (track 6, from 4’25”), the Bournemouth strings achieve the kind of ‘rough’ attack prescribed in the score, an awesome crescendo which in turn leads to the terrifying moment of capture. By contrast, the mincing col legno of the girl’s first ‘official’ punter, an old rake (track 2, 1’15”), is unusually delicate and when the Mandarin approaches (track 4, 1’05”) Alsop keeps those trilling woodwinds clearly in frame. The seduction games are sullen and slow, the gestural music after the chase (beyond the end of the official Suite) admirably dramatic. I wondered whether there was a momentary elision or overlap at 5’30” (the height of the chase), a smudged transition, maybe even an edit. Difficult to tell, and a small point.
As to comparisons, Fischer and his Budapest players are undeniably more polished although Alsop has her own distinctive take on the piece, assertive but never rowdy, and which really does deliver. I wasn’t quite so keen on the Dance Suite, especially the extended quiet chord at the close of the second dance and the even more extended rest before the third. What does work, however, is the dark, panther-like pawing at the start of the last dance, though the fugato that follows is a bit tame. More successful is the austere, trance-like molto tranquillo, its Stravinskian harmonies kept limpid and clear. The Hungarian Sketches work well, too, with ‘Slightly Tipsy’ raising a smile and a rustic gait to the closing ‘Swineherd’s Dance’ (some nice violin detail as the music slows down before the final loud wallop). Good sound, too – fairly polarised at times in spatial terms – and viewed overall this is a worthy introduction to some great music.