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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Wooden Prince (A Dancing-Play in One Act), BB 74 (1914-16)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. 9-10 May 2007, Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK
NAXOS 8.570534 [53:38]
Experience Classicsonline

Marin Alsop may have decamped to Baltimore but not before she made a series of rather good Bartók recordings with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Their Bluebeard (see review) is a gripping but low-key performance and their SACD of Miraculous Mandarin (Naxos 6.110088) is a real showpiece, if not quite as sleazy as Abbado’s fine account on DG (nla). So what does Alsop make of this strangely haunting ‘dance-play’?
The Wooden Prince is the second of Bartók’s three stage works – Bluebeard was written in 1911, Mandarin in 1918-19 – yet it was the first to be premiered in Budapest in 1917. The ballet, based on a fairy tale by Bluebeard librettist Béla Balázs, tells the story of a lovelorn prince who is kept away from his princess by an omniscient fairy. The prince manages to attract his beloved’s attention with a wooden dummy, which then comes to life. Inevitably the princess falls in love with the wooden prince but it breaks down. Eventually she spies the real prince and they are united in love as the curtain falls.
From the opening Molto moderato it’s clear Alsop’s performance is a more lyrical, even soft-centred one. The Naxos recording, rather like that for Bluebeard, is warmly expansive but not too detailed, which suits Alsop’s reading very well. By contrast the Pierre Boulez/Chicago performance (DG 435 863-2) is much more analytical and has astonishing dynamic range; musically and sonically the result is nothing short of spectacular.
The Bournemouth band can’t really compete with their transatlantic cousins, even though they play beautifully at times. But then this isn’t conventionally beautiful music and Boulez points this out at every turn. The result is altogether more idiomatic, the score splashed with brash colours and spots of pure grotesquerie. Take the First Dance, the Dance of the Princess in the Forest; Alsop makes it sound slightly bland, Boulez injecting the rhythms with more wit and character. That said the moment the prince sees the princess is suitably arresting under Alsop. The Second Dance, the Dance of the Trees, isn’t short on drama either, but Alsop can’t match Boulez when it comes to the sheer menace of those repeated drum rolls.
Honours are more evenly divided in the Third Dance, although at the building of the wooden prince Boulez works his orchestra into a veritable frenzy. To her credit Alsop achieves much the same effect, albeit without that last ounce of virtuosity. But then that is her way with Bartók; one may feel her readings are too reticent, underpowered even, but they are unfailingly musical.
Of course the downside is that Alsop’s Bartók can sound too soft and generalised when sharpness and bite are required. Boulez certainly brings his dissecting skills to this score, revealing every last sinew and vein. For instance the Fourth Dance is rhythmically explicit, instrumental details laid bare in a way that Alsop’s reading and the warmer Naxos recording don’t allow. And as heroic as the Bournemouth brass and percussion undoubtedly are they simply don’t slice through the musical textures like the Chicagoans do. Also, in the Fifth Dance, as the princess tries to dance with the wooden prince, Alsop doesn’t quite capture the awkwardness, the dark humour, that Boulez finds at this point.
In the Sixth and Seventh Dances there is less to separate the two performances, although Boulez does make it all sound genuinely symphonic in sweep and structure, culminating in a touching finale. Alsop certainly conveys that fairy tale mix of tenderness and passion as the prince and princess are united at last, but it’s Boulez who really creates characters of flesh and blood.
Of course Boulez has the DG engineers and an excellent band at his disposal, which makes all the difference with such a virtuosic score. That’s not to say the BSO and Naxos team are second-rate – far from it. Indeed, their performance of The Wooden Prince may have wider appeal than the Chicago one precisely because it’s warm and affectionate, more like a conventional fairy tale than a stark, modernist fable. Conversely, Bartókians will prefer Boulez’s more surgical approach because it cuts so deep and reveals so much that makes this score the masterpiece it is.
Dan Morgan


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