This is a miraculous
discovery. The New Symphony Orchestra
of London play with amazing assurance
and are accorded a top-notch recording
that shows analogue at its finest: warm
yet detailed. Booklet notes are refreshingly
detailed, even to the extent of including
musically-notated quotes to illustrate
the progress of the story.
The Wooden Prince
is a captivating fairytale of magic,
princes and princesses. A Prince falls
in love on the spot with a Princess,
who alas is impervious to his attentions.
A fairy puts various obstacles in his
path to stop him from contacting his
beloved, so he creates a wood copy of
himself. It works, and the Princess
dances with her toy. But the fairy creates
new clothes for the Prince and - eventually
- they become a couple and live happily
in this ballet is powerful and intense
(more so than a précis such as
that above may be seen to imply, perhaps).
It is rarely acidic, often capricious
(as in the clarinet’s depiction of the
Princess’ movements, around 4’00, and
her ensuing clarinet-dominated dance)
and sometimes plainly and unashamedly
Romantic. Bartók’s mastery of
orchestration is overwhelming, and Süsskind’s
keen ear for balance ensures textures
never become crowded. The alertness
to rhythm, so vital in Bartók’s
music, is no less impressive.
The very opening, indeed,
shows how multi-faceted this score is.
It is at once a magical evocation of
a world of the imagination, but the
aloof strings evoke not only mystery
but also disquiet and even inherent
danger. The interaction between the
innocence of a fairy-tale and its manifestation
as something more horrific provides
the basis for Bartók’s realisation.
The darker passages of the score (e.g.
around 10’40, as the Dance of the Forest
begins) are remarkably evocative under
Süsskind’s direction, the gestures
taken as just that (try the upward swish
of the strings at 15’06, booklet quote
p.5). Yet the extreme Romanticism of
other sections is in no way under-played.
The grotesque elements
of the Princess’s dance with the ‘Wooden
Prince’ is fully brought out in this
performance (around 27 minutes in, onwards,
including the ‘dance proper’, around
28’30). The climaxes are magnificently
taken - and listen to the comic effect
of the contrast of the arrival of the
Princess with her dishevelled doll (41’16).
Whatever the merits
of individual moments (and indeed, of
the many marvellous instrumental solos),
above all it is the sheer life and vivacity
of this performance that makes it so
impressive. Boulez (DG 435 863-2) and
Dorati (Philips 434 357-2) have oft
been cited as the foremost available
versions of this ballet. Now another
name can be added to the list.