Compared with the personae of The Miraculous Mandarin, Vladimir and Estragon almost seem like high society. This strange tale, with its inconclusive ending, of the weird light that shines into a squalid little world, not even amounting to a demi-monde, was given its premiere in Cologne in 1926 and promptly stamped on by Cologne's mayor Konrad Adenauer, later famous as West Germany's steely old Chancellor in the post-war years. The story of prostitution, robbery, deception and murder can hardly have been awfully startling in inter-wars Germany one wouldn't have thought, certainly not if Brecht and Isherwood are anything to go by, which they are. We are made of stronger stuff these days, and one of the things that particularly commends this disc is that the full score of the ballet is performed. At the same time, we are also harder to shock nowadays with harsh and dissonant musical idioms. Bartok himself described the music of The Miraculous Mandarin as 'hellish'. Myself, I am anything but avant-garde in my musical taste, but the once hellish music is music that I find gripping, involving and easy to take in. Bartok has, for me, a musical 'bite' in his idiom that is clean and bracing, the sort of quality that I find in some of my other favourite 20th-century composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Britten.
The idiom progressively relaxes as this orchestral recital goes on. The Dance Suite is far less challenging than The Miraculous Mandarin, and the Hungarian Pictures less so still. I found myself very impressed by the grasp of Bartok's style (or styles) that Marin Alsop shows. The recording is not the last word in vividness, always an advantage in a Bartok score, but at a bargain price I am certainly not inclined to complain. The musical public have every reason to be grateful to Naxos and certain other budget labels for their tenacity and imagination in keeping up the supply of high-quality music that does not top any popularity charts at a time of great economic difficulty for the industry. What you will find here is a completely admirable set of performances, interpreted with style and flair, and played with professional pride. For newcomers to the composer I would say that the Dance Suite and Hungarian Pictures ought to ease you into his idiom without problems. There is no denying that The Miraculous Mandarin is music for grown-ups and for comparatively sophisticated tastes, but if you are daunted in any way by the latter all I would say is -- don't be.