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Blair Sanderson, March 2011

The pairing of the concert suite from Béla Bartók’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin and Johannes Brahms’Symphony No. 1 in C minor is an unusual match-up, for there is nothing obvious in the music that connects these works. One might suppose that their contrasts of periods, genres, methods, styles, and other characteristics are stark enough to draw many listeners for different reasons, and that the program was perhaps designed to broaden the appeal of this CD. Certainly, the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Jonathan Pasternack turn in exciting performances of both masterpieces, and the rhythmic vitality and sharp colors of The Miraculous Mandarin prepare one to listen for all the syncopations and exceptional timbres in the symphony. In the end, however, the real unifying element of this disc is the reproduction, since both sessions were digitally recorded at Abbey Road Studios in 2008 with Sennheiser and Neumann microphones. The extremely sensitive equipment lends a special depth to the sonic dimensions and highlights details in the playing that one might expect of direct stream digital, multichannel, and super audio recordings. Oddly enough, the sound of the Bartók still differs in its qualities from the Brahms, for its expressive temperature is cooler and harsher, its orchestration is leaner, and its textures are more abrasive, whereas the Brahms is quite warm and rich, thanks to its vibrant bass sound. Enthusiasts for The Miraculous Mandarin should eventually acquire a recording of the complete ballet, and admirers of the symphony will likely own classic renditions, so the best reason to check out this album is for its audio.

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, February 2011

On this recent Naxos issue, the company oddly couple Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite with Brahms’s First Symphony, trying to make a connection between the two works by saying they are both “revolutionary.” If you can forget the tenuous relationship and just enjoy the music for itself, you may be better off.

Bela Bartók (1841–1945) premiered his Miraculous Mandarin pantomime (ballet) in 1926 in Cologne, Germany, where the mayor immediately banned it on moral grounds. The story line, you see, involves a pack of hoodlums who force a girl to seduce men up to her apartment, where the gang attempt to rob them. In its purely orchestral treatment as a suite of music, however, shorn of its visuals, it gained popularity. Certaainly, the piece is highly descriptive, mimed on stage or not. It’s also abrasive, jazzy, mysterious, sinister, and exciting, making for an entertaining twenty minutes or so.

Maestro Jonathan Pasternack and the LSO appear to relish the atmospheric nature of the material and do their best to emphasize the contrasts between the quieter moods and the more clamorous ones. The conductor builds the suspense nicely and then cuts loose with some strong histrionic attacks that can be downright scary. You’ll also find elements here of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, particularly toward the end, which can only improve one’s appreciation.

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) wrote his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, in 1876, and I suppose it really was “revolutionary,” at least for him. It was one of the first true symphonies anyone had written in ages, and Brahms patterned it after Beethoven’s work, leading waggish critics of the day to dub it Beethoven’s Tenth. In part, Brahms’s rival, Richard Wagner, had discouraged composers from working in the symphony genre, saying in effect that Beethoven had already done everything that a composer needed to do in the field and that the music drama and symphonic poem were now king. It sort of intimidated Brahms (and others) for many years.

Anyway, Pasternack offers us a thoroughly charming, gentle, though entirely big-scale First Symphony, with practically all the poetry, drama, and thematic evolution from darkness into light one could hope for. The whole thing starts out slowly, almost ponderously, develops incrementally, and ends in exultation and joy. No, Pasternack didn’t inspire me the way Klemperer (EMI), Boult (EMI), Abbado (DG), Jochum (EMI), Walter (Sony), Haitink (Philips), Kertesz (Decca), and others do, but it’s an acceptable substitute.

Naxos recorded this 2011 release at Abbey Road Studios, London, in July of 2008. The sound is pleasantly warm, soft, and smooth, which works fine in the Brahms, although the Bartók could have used more bite. While there are occasional traces of orchestral depth, the sonics generally content themselves with a wide stereo spread and an easily listenable midrange. Deepest bass and ultimate transparency are only moderate so audiophiles may not be entirely happy with those aspects of the recording, but the timpani in the Brahms tap out gleefully, with solid impact, so all is reasonably well.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2011

The multi-award winning American conductor, Jonathan Pasternack, makes his disc debut with two powerful performances from the London Symphony Orchestra. He had the unique prepotency to study five instruments—violin, cello, trombone, piano and percussion—before turning his attention to conducting, his mentors including Neeme Jarvi, David Zinman and the famous pedagog, Jorma Panula. He has concentrated his career in the States, working in opera, ballet and on the concert stage, and opens his first studio sessions with the concert suite from Bartok’s grotesque ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, a story of prostitution and murder. It is a highly detailed performance that enjoys excellent recorded sound. There are certainly more febrile accounts on disc, but Pasternack is graphic in detailing events, his subtle colours more telling than the brutality that is involved. The pounding rhythm that opens the Brahms First Symphony sets the scene for an opening movement where strength is the key element. The timpani dominate the scene, its presence clearly defined even in the work’s quiet passages, for here, and throughout the score, Pasternack draws attention to points of orchestration that usually dissolve into the general texture. His slow movement is unhurried, woodwind solos allowed ample time to demonstrate their beauty of tone, the closing passage spread out for our enjoyment. We have on disc more urgent scherzos, Pasternack underlining both dynamic and tempo contrasts. The final Allegro raises an ample head of steam as the growling lower strings take us into the timpani dominated closing passage. A top recording team were working in London’s Abbey Road Studio, and with your volume control set way above normal you can enjoy most impressive sound.

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