Bartók—The Miraculous Mandarin, Dance Suite, Hungarian Pictures—Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Marin Alsop (Naxos) [DVD-Audio, SACD/CD, CD]

Imagine the score for a 33-minute film noir with nonstop action. That's Béla Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin in a nutshell, although it's actually a one-act dance suite. The story concerns three thugs who use a young woman as bait to rob a series of victims, culminating in the Mandarin. They murder him—but not before he consummates his passion for the girl. The plot had enough sex and violence to get it banned immediately upon its 1926 debut in Köln, Germany.

Naxos has released this title in triplicate. The DVD-Audio multichannel version sounds best by a small margin, although the SACD comes close, with the stereo CD a distant third. Recording details include a sampling rate of 44.1 kilohertz (the same as CD) with 24-bit resolution (way better than CD). The DVD-Audio release is the only one to disclose that information.

The recording itself is all sharp edges and intense tonal colors. A longish reverb provides a back-of-the-hall feeling, while it emphasizes the surreal nature of the work. Brass instruments are bright and aggressive. Strong bass combines with the hall's slow decay to turn the tympani into dark, violent thunderclouds.

Also present are Bartók's Dance Suite and Hungarian Pictures, both of which combine Western European techniques with Eastern European folk tunes. These less brutal works are more typical of Bartók and serve as an excellent introduction.

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