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Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

The Miraculous Mandarin & other works

Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
Royal Festival Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Misha Donat
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes
Release date: September 2016
Total duration: 68 minutes 29 seconds

Recorded as part of their critically praised ‘Infernal Dance’ season, the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen explores three contrasting works by Béla Bartók—Dance Suite, The Miraculous Mandarin, and the chamber piece Contrasts.


'Salonen keeps this highly graphic and emotionally potent music on the move' (Gramophone)

'The now-or-never concert adrenaline is palpable … it’s all delivered with that unnervingly meticulous, steely focus that conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen gets from the Philharmonia' (The Guardian)» More

'Salonen and the Philharmonia relish the rhythmic barbarity, which rivals that of The Rite of Spring—the strings digging deep in the furious allegro. Salonen is in his element in Bartok’s hardcore modernism, but the more accessible Dance Suite is superbly played, too' (The Sunday Times)
The Miraculous Mandarin
‘An amazing variety of sensations came into being in my ears. There are some sudden stabbing pains…I feel small ants scratching and causing an irresistible itching in the depth of my ears.’ For 23 days during October 1918 Béla Bartók lay in bed with the Spanish influenza that was then stalking the world. His friend Zoltán Kodály worried that an acute inflammation of the ear might permanently damage his hearing. Indeed, for a while after doctors had opened his eardrum Bartók was intrigued, for he heard anything played on the piano three notes higher than normal!

Although Bartók survived the ‘flu, and his hearing soon returned to normal, Hungary was in terminal turmoil. The day after Bartók crawled off his sickbed, the Hungarian premier was assassinated. Four days later the Austro-Hungarians achieved armistice, a fortnight later centuries of Habsburg monarchy were at an end, and within four months the first Hungarian Soviet Republic had been declared. The unassuming Bartók found himself, in rapid succession, a Liberal appointee to the Hungarian National Council and then a member of the Communists’ music directorate.

It is indeed strange that during these months of death, mayhem and revolution Bartók wrote the bulk of the composition that he loved more than any: his pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin. Strange, too, that the fates would conspire to ensure that he never saw his work on the Budapest stage during his lifetime. Its stage première there would occur in December 1945, in another period of strife and disorder, and just weeks after his death far away in New York.

Bartók’s scenario originated in 1916 as a pantomime grotesque by Melchior Lengyel. The Hungarian dramatist (later Hollywood screenwriter) had hoped to interest Bartók’s renowned friend Ernst von Dohnányi in writing something to rival the successes of the pre-War Ballets Russes. But it was, rather, Bartók who in the summer of 1917 started to sketch out some ideas. By September 1918 these ideas were taking more concrete form. To his wife and son he wrote: ‘If it works out it will be a devilish piece. Its beginning—a very short introduction before the curtain opens—is a terrible din, clattering, rattling, hooting.’

The Mandarin story is simple. It stars one female prostitute, three male pimps and three male clients: an old man, a young student and a ‘weird’ oriental gentleman. Against the sonic backdrop of the grimy city, the prostitute sets to work in luring clients (seductive clarinet music). The old man (snarling brass) is comic and knows the score (no money, no sex), so is given short shrift by the pimps. The young student (oboe) is shy and nervous, and engages the prostitute more deeply (bassoon) but, despite his growing passion, he too is obviously a waster.

Again the prostitute sets to work (more desperate and higher clarinet music). The Mandarin emerges (the percussion gain a fuller workout), although interplay with the prostitute is tentative and fumbling. Gradually, however, his excitement grows, as does her revulsion. She tries to break away, but he pursues her in a classic chase scene (full orchestra, with drums).

Writing in March 1919 Bartók described what then happens: ‘The [pimps] attack him, rob him, smother him in a quilt, stab him with a sword—but their violence is to no avail. They cannot cope with the Mandarin, who continues to look at the girl with love and longing in his eyes.’ This man from another world does not play by the normal rules. Somehow, he turns the tables on the prostitute. She is made to feel genuine emotion, to realise that she, too, can experience the power of love. Bartók concludes: ‘Finally, feminine instinct helps, and the girl satisfies the Mandarin’s desire; only then does he collapse and die.’

This devilish Mandarin music is Bartók’s answer to Stravinsky’s ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). While he is less rhythmically daring than the Russian, he is just as boldly fragmentary in its construction, and shows his abilities in writing for orchestra at their very finest. This music is about as discordant as Bartók ever became, and it is impossible to divorce the overwhelming sense of angst in this pantomime from the chaos of his everyday life in disintegrating Hungary.

Despite the white-heat of Bartók’s creativity in these fateful months, the final form of The Miraculous Mandarin came about with tighter temperature control. Although most of the music was composed in 1918-19, he only wrote it out for full orchestra in 1924, when a première looked imminent. But he continued to play with the pantomime’s later parts until 1931, ever trying to ensure that it remained as lean and as mean as possible. Bartók was keen to avoid the accusations of ‘dramatic padding’ levelled against his ballet The Wooden Prince.

Although The Miraculous Mandarin failed to grace the Budapest stage in Bartók’s lifetime he did manage to see it live just once: at its controversial première at the Cologne Opera in 1926. The audience was rowdy and irrevocably divided; the critics ranged from adulatory to apoplectic. The reputation of the music director of the Cologne Opera, the Hungarian Jen Szenkár, was on the line. On the following Monday morning the young conductor was summoned before the Mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer (later West Germany’s first Chancellor): how could it ever have crossed Szenkár’s mind to perform such a ‘dirty piece’? Without discussion, Adenauer promptly banned the work. Szenkár considered resigning but was persuaded by Bartók to stay on to fight another day.

As well as the full pantomime version, Bartók prepared a shorter suite, which ends mid-way through the story, after the Chase scene. He hoped that it might prove a more attractive option for concert performance; indeed, it has a very satisfying musical, even symphonic, coherence to it, despite the obvious truncation of the plot. This abbreviated form was premièred in Budapest in 1928 under the baton of the composer for whom Lengyel had originally intended the libretto of The Miraculous Mandarin: Ernst von Dohnányi.

Dance Suite
On 17 November 1873 the three sister cities of Buda, Óbuda and Pest united to create the metropolis of Budapest. Over the next half-century the city’s population grew five-fold as Budapest joined Vienna as co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1923, however, that multi-ethnic empire of increasing economic prosperity had been shattered, swept away in the aftermath of the First World War. Budapest was still the capital city of Hungary, but of a country barely one-third its original size and stripped of most of its ethnic minorities as well as nearly one-third of its own ethnic kin. Inflation was rampant; living standards were precarious. Amid this gloom some enlightened municipal authorities determined to commission three compositions in celebration of the city’s 50th anniversary. Ernst von Dohnányi produced a Festival Overture, Zoltán Kodály the Psalmus Hungaricus and Bartók decided on a suite of dances. All three works were premièred on 19 November 1923 under Dohnányi’s direction.

After four years of writing highly dissonant music, where tune and accompaniment were often in opposition, Bartók’s Dance Suite marked a retreat into greater consonance. We can already hear in this suite some of the orchestral techniques that would 20 years later come to fuller flowering in another dance-inspired suite, his Concerto for Orchestra. Although the reception of the Dance Suite was only lukewarm at its première, where it was somewhat overshadowed by Kodály’s new oratorio, the work quickly went on to gain immense popularity. It contained the sunny optimism and stylistic sheen that had been lacking in most of Bartók’s works of the previous decade. His publishers even took out advertisements in 1925 proudly proclaiming that his new suite would be heard in 60 cities across Europe and North America during the coming season.

Bartók’s suite uses ‘idealised’ peasant music in various ethnic styles. That is, the themes are of his own devising but according to a variety of different stylistic templates. The result is six short movements, all run together, with a common connecting (ritornello) theme between most of them. Only between the third and fourth movements is there a real sense of a break in the music, where this connecting theme is conspicuously absent. Although Bartók was, at the time, tight-lipped about the ethnic templates he was invoking—the political situation throughout central Europe in 1923 was still very tense—he later gave a rollcall of his styles, with the connecting ritornello being in Hungarian style, his first movement recalling a chromatic ‘Arabic’ style, his second movement Hungarian and his third a mixture of Hungarian bagpipe and Romanian violin styles.

His later three movements were of growing stylistic internationalism, leading to the medley of his final movement in which ‘primitive’ and Hungarian themes predominate. You might ask where the Slovaks were, amid this melodic melange. And Bartók did draft a Slovak-styled movement as well—it was to occur after the second movement—but removed it in his final revision of the suite. In musical practice, then, Bartók was already committing to the cultural pluralism that he would more publicly and controversially advocate in the decade of the 1930s.

This suite also reveals Bartók as an orchestrator of growing confidence, and one now well equipped to score his much more extensive pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin. His interplay between strings and wind/brass is very skilful. The suite’s tranquil fourth movement, with its meandering opening melody on cor anglais and bass clarinet, was an early herald of the hushed style of ‘night music’ that he would develop in his works from 1926 onwards. The snarling glissandos of the trombones and upper strings in his second movement was another highly effective innovation, to which Bartók constantly returned throughout the movement. Of course, not all listeners were impressed. The Times’ critic of a February 1926 London performance remonstrated: ‘It is time that some protest was registered against glissandos on the trombones, even if every other atrocity is admitted to the concert room.’

There was another, more personal reason for Bartók’s new radiance in the Dance Suite: he was in love. During the summer of 1923, as well as writing this suite he divorced his wife Márta Ziegler and rapidly married a 19-year-old piano student Ditta Pásztory. But despite the divorce Ziegler, to whom Duke Bluebeard’s Castle had been dedicated, continued to help him in copying out the Dance Suite’s full score!

Contrasts is one of Béla Bartók’s most imaginative forays into the world of chamber music. His only chamber work involving a woodwind instrument, Contrasts originated in a commission from the American ‘King of Swing’, Benny Goodman, which was brokered by Bartók’s friend, the violinist József Szigeti. The original idea was for Bartók to write two ‘self-standing’ movements, able to fit the two sides of a 78rpm disc of the day. That meant six or seven minutes of music, in total. Goodman’s other requirement was that there be cadenzas somewhere both for clarinet and for violin.

From an original slow-fast Rhapsody plan, however, the work grew into Two Dances, and then Three Dances, and finally settled as the 16-minute Contrasts, of three movements. Bartók himself quipped to Szigeti that it was as if he had been commissioned to come up with clothing for a three-year-old yet had delivered enough for a full adult.

The title Contrasts perfectly reflects the work’s intentions: to play on the contrasts of timbre between clarinet and violin, and the contrasting range of sonorities within each instrument’s grasp. Nowhere is that range more exploited than in the third movement, which begins with a deliberately mis-tuned violin and the sharper-toned B flat clarinet, before Bartók progressively reverts to the violin’s traditional tuning and the clarinet in A used elsewhere in the piece. To etch these instrumental contrasts in higher relief Bartók deliberately keeps the piano in the background, often as little more than rhythmic accompaniment. Just occasionally, however, he cannot help himself and the piano breaks out into its own rhapsodic utterance or explores its own more percussive sonorities.

Contrasts is also a study in different movement types. The first movement is in a highly stylised, moderate-paced Verbunkos (recruitment dance) Hungarian idiom, and leads towards the clarinet’s cadenza. The third movement is a fast and cheeky medley leading to a virtuosic violin cadenza and then a joyous, whooping conclusion for all three instruments. But what are we to make of Bartók’s addition: the middle, Relaxation movement that Goodman had not originally ordered?

This Relaxation (Pihen, in Hungarian) is a further and utterly brilliant essay in contrasts. It provides calmer, more neutral ground between the exhibitionism of the boisterous outer movements. It shows Bartók as master of the art of eerie, ‘frozen theatre’—a talent he had already demonstrated in his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). How this Relaxation movement raises the hairs on the back of our necks is simple: Bartók makes us listen to the inherent contrasts of tone between the two instruments in a most simple formula. Whenever the violin’s melody goes up, the clarinet’s goes down, and vice versa. The piano rumbles and ruminates in the background helping to choreograph the movement from relaxation to an incredibly tense climax, and then back towards a greater degree of repose.

Bartók listened to records of Goodman’s playing, of both classical and jazz works, before he set to work on Contrasts. Although by no stretch of the imagination could Contrasts be called ‘jazz’, it is a creative reinterpretation of Goodman’s musicianship, deliciously filtered through Bartók’s remarkable ethnomusicological ear. As with the commissioning of the Solo Violin Sonata by Yehudi Menuhin a few years later, Goodman’s few hundred dollars led to an enduring, very personal addition to Bartók’s oeuvre.

Malcolm Gillies © 2016

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