Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon 2530 887). It is increasing clear that Bela Bartok is one of the half dozen or so giants of 20th-century music. He did little of revolutionize it, unlike Beethoven in the early 1800s or Stravinsky a century later. His role was simply to enrich the literature of musical experience, as this recording so successfully demonstrates.
Even though these two works were premiered only nine years apart, it might be a surprise to the unprepared ear that they are products of the same composer. "Mandarin" is very much the frenzied, physical Bartok. The "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" is perhaps the ultimate orchestral example of the deeper, metaphysical Bartok.
Both works have been frequently recorded. This record, though, renders them both with a clarity and refinement rare even in the concert hall.
The "Mandarin," done here in Bartok's abbreviated concert suite form, is, quite specifically, one of the most lurid works ever written. In the dance, the protagonist is a prostitute who lures men into her lair so that thieves can rob and murder them. The frenzied music is more than a match for the subject. When "Mandarin" was premiered, in Cologne, outrage reached such proportions that future performances were forbidden by the mayor, a man named Konrad Adenauer.Despite this overraction by the future chancellor, the music was typical of its times, rooted in the barbaric trend that Stravinsky's "Sacre" started. In this performance, the unbending rigor that sometimes impedes an Ozawa interpretation is exactly right. Order is made of its wildness, and its howling effects are made beautiful.
The companion work related to no such trend in orchestral works. Its closest relatives are the late Beethoven quartets, of which Bartok's own six quartets are direct descendents. The lengthy fugue that opens it - grim, tight, dense and tragic - is one of the high points of this century's music. One reaches to works like the funeral march from Beethoven's "Eroica" for comparisons. It is lyrical, eloquent though understated art derived from a period in European history (the early Hitler era) that Bartok correctly perceived to be poised for catastrophe.
The transparent purity of the Boston Symphony's sound is ideal for this frequently delicate, shimmering music. And combined with Ozawa's acute ear for balances and DG's superb sound the results are exciting indeed.
Brahms: Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11. Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam. Bernard Haitink, conductor (Philips 9500 322). This is a lesser known Brahms work, but there is no reason why it should languish in relative obscurity. Perhaps the reason is that Brahms' two Serenades sound so unBrahmsian to the ear attuned to the grandeur of the symphonies and the concertos.
Here, Brahms is a closer relation to Mozart than to Beethoven. Neither it nor anything else matches the refinement of Mozart's serenades and divertimentos. But there is a kinship in the six-movement structure, in the heavy emphasis on the woodwinds and the horns and in the pensive yet genial mood.
After these Serenades, written in his 20s, Brahms never really got back to this mode. It would be Dvorak, a few years later, who would pick up this link and develop in into even grander creations. People are always writing about the influence of Brahms' Symphonies on Dvorak, an imprint I have had difficulty discerning. But the tie here in unmistakable.
The mellow sound of the Concertgebouw's winds and brass is practically ideal for this work. Haitink sensibly keeps it within the frame of chamber music for large orchestra. And Philips' sound is a model. This is Brahms to relax to.