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