Classic CD: Bartok, Orchestral Works (Ode Records)
Verdict: Classic Hungarian scores gleam anew on the other side of the globe Edward Gardner works well with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Their new Bartok collection owes much to the English conductor's long-standing experience in the opera house.
It is certainly there for all to hear in the opening Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. Written in 1927, this ballet score is an absolute chiller, a classic of the Expressionist spirit in music.
The plot of the ballet concerns sleazy goings-on in Chinatown, involving a lecherous Mandarin, three thugs and an innocent girl who falls into their clutches. While the violence that ensues might not be a cause for celebration in real life, on this occasion it inspires some of the most brilliant orchestration ever committed to staves. Without a staging, it is this ear-catching soundworld that carries the work, and the Australians deliver it with style - not only in the gleaming savagery of the more extrovert pages but also in those quieter, often murky moments, where jazz influences seep through.
Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is one of his most approachable creations. It dates from 1936, when the composer was moving irrevocably from a troubled Europe to Stateside safety.
This performance benefits enormously from being a live recording, taken over four evenings in Melbourne's Arts Centre last March. Listening to the finesse of those prowling strings in the first movement, with their snakelike counterpoint, one feels proud that New Zealand has provided the MSO with a concertmaster of the stature of Wilma Smith.
Gardner catches the spirit of the dance in the second movement and it is an irresistible Hungarian romp. The Finale lives up to its reputation as probably Bartok's eeriest piece of night music.
It is easy to overlook the Four Portraits of 1912, orchestrated by Bartok nine years later, works that owe much to the French music of their time. There is a lot of Debussy and Ravel here, with those washes of harp and veiled sonorities.
Gardner and his musicians convey this with real elan, and hold nothing back in the demonic Scherzo, which sounds triply terrifying, caught in the acoustics of Monash University's Robert Blackwood Hall.