This disc brilliantly contrasts the mature, maverick Bartok with the younger, more traditional (but no less inspired) composer. Surprisingly, the earlier works hold up quite well, and still bear Bartok's distinct stamp and color--which is certainly not the case for many great composers (Stravinsky's early symphony, for example). Dorati is among the greatest interpreters of Bartok's music, and his version of the Mandarin is astounding, as expected. Full of fire, atmosphere, and passages of eerie beauty. His Music for Percussion and Strings is also amazing, though I actually prefer his version on Mercury with the London SO (coupled with his rare ballet, The Wooden Prince--better sound, too). But this is a small quibble, and the performance is spirited and inspired.
But I feel I really have to pitch the two largely unknown early works, the Rhapsody for Piano & Orch., Op.1 and the Suite No.1 for Orchestra, Op.3. The Rhapsody is a pungent, virtuostic piece, somewhat similar to Strauss' early Burleske, though with a more Hungarian lilt to it. It also complements his Violin Rhapsodies, though this piece is more squarely in the tradition of Liszt, Dohnanyi, and Kodaly. Why this is not more performed I will never know--it would be a sure crowd pleaser (particularly for those who are unfamiliar and unenthusiastic about his idiom).
However, my favorite piece of all is the remarkably inventive Suite, which overflows with Romantic Nationalism in a vein that skirts Dvorak and the Russians, though sounds nothing at all like them. The first movement opens up with a Straussian march, heroic, even a bit pompous, though orchestrated with glitter and fireworks. The second movement is all grim, Hungarian atmosphere, and indeed, the ominous drumbeat with muffled trumpets is quoted in the Concerto for Orchestra so many years later (or so I believe, maybe he didn't mean it?). Indeed, this piece is itself a kind of Concerto for Orchestra, as the orchestra is kept very busy embellishing his folk-like melodies. A dashing scherzo follows, and then a haunting slow movement which again sounds very nationalistic, a kind of piece Bartok would never write again. Even less Bartokian is the festive finale, which sounds a lot like Smetana--though it's completely captivating in its own, derivative way. In short, the Suite is a work of genius, if a slightly immature one; but that doesn't stop me from listening to it over and over again. Sadly, I don't have a recording of his Second Orchestral Suite...is there a Dorati version floating around somewhere?
The disc concludes with the most haunting, atmospheric, intense account of the oft-recorded Two Pictures, Op.10 I have ever heard. The sheer longing of the opening melody is almost unbearable. I also love how Dorati brings out the Debussyian sheen of the orchestra in this piece. We hear Bartok's distinct voice for the first time in the second "picture," which smacks of the sardonic humor of the Mandarin.
A wonderful, bargain of a disc that should not be missed, no matter how many Mandarins you have in your collection.