Contrasts abound and not just in the piece of that name – commissioned from Bartók by Benny Goodman in 1938 – and in which a distinguished duo of Philharmonia Orchestra musicians, aided and abetted by Yefim Bronfman, give a vivid account that recruits, relaxes and (with the violin’s introduction suggesting a distorted allusion to the opening of Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre) fast-dances in fine style, vivid characterisation and with true chamber-music interaction.
Dance Suite (1923) – written to mark fifty years since Buda, Pest and Óbuda had been unified – is given a fiery and tart outing with the occasional linger and emphasis that retards the flow and introduces a impression somewhat ‘foreign’ to Bartók’s intentions, but overall this is a colourful presentation with particular regard to Bartók’s orchestration, the clarity of which is notable, and there is some brilliant and responsive playing, captured in sound that allows the Royal Festival Hall to be its unencumbered self. (I don’t previously recall hearing a tambourine in the final movement, here at 2’44” on track 16.)
For all that Bartók made a Suite from Miraculous Mandarin – ending with the exciting ‘chase’ music – it’s what happens after this, in the final third of the complete ballet, that shows the composer at his most boundary-breaking. It is here that Esa-Pekka Salonen is most in his element, relishing the modernism and unflinching description of mindless brutality and enigmatic transformation (and including a vocalising choir to accentuate the strangeness).
From the outset the monotonous if hectic activity of a crime-rife city is suggested: this is not a nice place (strangers beware) and – the Mandarin aside – these are not nice people, including the murderous muggers and the scam seductress luring victims to be robbed, at the very least. Eerie threat and the danger-spots of dark alleyways are hurled uncompromisingly at the listener, the Philharmonia’s playing vibrant with nightmare scenarios – not least the stabbed, refusing-to-die Mandarin, and the whole is a compelling theatrical experience and a musically striking one: no easy ride for the listener, either.