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Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Wooden Prince (1914-16) [53:38]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Marin Alsop
rec. Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK, 9-10 May 2007
NAXOS 8.570534 [53:38]
Experience Classicsonline

I was rather less than positive about the last Marin Alsop Bartók disc that came my way, feeling that a whole dimension of The Miraculous Mandarin was somehow underplayed (see review). It’s good to report, then, that her approach to The Wooden Prince, the ballet that preceded Mandarin, is largely similar but ends up suiting the music far better.
Actually, Bartók calls this ‘A Dancing Play in One Act’, but I guess to us that’s still a ballet. It’s often been dismissed as rather second-rate Bartók, sometimes appearing on disc in a truncated suite, but when one experiences the whole thing, it really is worth hearing. The story is pretty standard fairytale stuff involving a Prince, Princess, a forest,   fairy and a happy ending, but the scenario by Béla Balácz – who had provided Bartók with the libretto for Bluebeard’s Castle – has enough darker undercurrents that Bartók’s imagination was obviously fired.
The score is less radical than Mandarin but has bags of atmosphere. The opening is likened by the Naxos note writer to Das Rheingold, a comparison I have seen elsewhere. Yes, you can hear an evocation of nature growing from one triadic chord low in the orchestra, but I hear more Stravinsky’s Firebird here than anything. Throughout the score, there are allusions to Stravinsky, Debussy and, occasionally at climaxes, Strauss, but one hears Bartók’s ‘true’ voice at all the best moments. For example, at 2:07 into the ‘Dance of the Princess in the Forest’, one can detect those gurgling little clarinet solos that were to become so prominent in Mandarin. It is these atmospheric passages that Alsop brings off splendidly, her Bournemouth orchestra alive to subtle shadings and nuances. When things hot up, she still holds back a little more than Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic, who clearly enjoys making the score appear more forward-looking (brutal?) than it perhaps is. Indeed, Alsop makes a case for linking it with the composers already mentioned, playing up its Romantic lineage effectively. One of the best examples is the work’s main climax, ‘Great Apotheosis’ (tr. 10), where she holds back the brass volume just enough for its release to be even more overwhelming, whereas Boulez encourages his New Yorkers to let rip in exciting, but rather vulgar, fashion much earlier.
The score teems with detail, as well as folksy rhythms so associated with the composer, and Alsop doesn’t miss much. If you really do want more voltage then Boulez or, more recently, Zoltan Kocsis’s highly-rated reading might be more for you. But to my ears Alsop does a very fine job of coaxing the maximum mystery and atmosphere from this underrated score, and given the fine audio quality, one can’t really quibble.
Tony Haywood

see also review by Dan Morgan



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