This CD contains a set of short Hungarian songs, but everything else is about the dance. Bartok was not just a collector of folk songs with Kodaly but an expert in dance traditions throughout the Balkans. He extended his curiosity into the Arab world of North Africa, as one can hear in the popular Dance Suite. Here we get 16 lesser-known dance collections from Romania, Transylvania, and Hungary, Mostly quite brief, they build from a fascinating palette of rhythms, each more exotically syncopated than the last. Fischer and his Budapest orchestra perform them with complete ease and native flavor.
Even without the fillers, however, the main work is superbly done. The Miraculous Mandarin ballet has been called Bartok's response to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. But superficial resemblances aside in terms of motor rhythms and dissonant harmonies, the Mandarin is a more shocking, horrific scenario, featuring sexual craving, torture, despair, and a suicide by hanging. Most condcutors set out to maximize the shock value of this often barbaric-sounding music, but Fischer is comparatively less aggressive. He loosens the tension a notch, letting the rhythms become more lilting--even comic in their macabre way--and asking the woodwinds to sing as much as screech. As a result, we don't feel quite so assaulted, and for me that led to more enjoyment. He is aided by exceptionally clear, natural sonics from Philips that convey the music with wonderful impact.