This is an odd coupling. The notes don’t help explain the collation of these disparate works except for the conductor’s rather vaguely argued affection for both pieces. Brahms comes out of it best as Pasternack gives the great work due weight, although the performance loses energy in the development section of the first movement.
Bartók is a different matter. The Miraculous Mandarin was the final stage work of one of the key composers of the 20th century. It is set in a brothel, where thugs use an attractive young girl to draw men in to murder and rob them. The music is remarkable and the composer uses all his skills in conjuring up the lurid world described. Feverish strings rush us forward into the score, and the composer’s trademarks of sliding trombones and exotic percussion are employed to great effect.
However, the piece had a rocky start. The controversial ballet so horrified the original audience in Cologne in 1926 that it was withdrawn after one performance, after which it was suppressed due to censorship for many years. There are many recordings of the piece. Bartók’s countryman Antal Doráti’s tough and muscular approach can be heard on a fine old Mercury CD with the BBC Symphony; better still is his fabulous version made for Decca in 1985, certainly superior to this new recording on Naxos. (Solti with the Chicago Symphony is also recommended.) The Doráti couplings are also far more sensible, with Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta as companion piece. I suppose for the price, if you just want the symphony or the ballet and nothing else was available, it could serve.