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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Wooden Prince, Op. 13 - A ballet-pantomime in one Act, with a scenario by Béla Balázs (1917) [53:48]
Concert suite The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19 - A ballet-pantomime in one Act, after a libretto by Melchior Lengyel (1924/1927) [18:26]
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki
rec. 2017 (The Wooden Prince), 2018 (The Miraculous Mandarin), Helsinki Music Centre, Finland
Reviewed as a 24/48 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2328 SACD [73:07]

These are two very different pieces, The Wooden Prince a vibrant folk tale, The Miraculous Mandarin - played here in suite form - a violent modernist one. I much prefer the latter in its full version, though: my top pick for that is Claudio Abbado’s 1982 Kingsway recording, with the LSO in blistering form; not far behind are Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony, set down in 1994 (both Deutsche Grammophon). As for the suite, the most recent recording to come my way was Edward Gardner’s, with the Melbourne SO (2013). Although he’s not a conductor I generally warm to, I thought his Mandarin ‘magnificent’ (Chandos). As for the complete Prince, I found much to admire in Marin Alsop’s 2007 Bournemouth account (Naxos). My first choice? Boulez and the CSO, recorded in 1991 (DG).

The Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki is new to me, although I see two of her BIS albums - of Mahler’s orchestral songs with mezzo Katarina Karnéus, and various works by the Norwegian composer Arvid Kleven - have been very well received on these pages.

The Wooden Prince, the second of Bartók’s three stage works – Duke Bluebeard dates from 1911, The Miraculous Mandarin from 1918/24 – was premiered in Budapest in 1917. The ‘ballet-pantomime’, adapted 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. Then she spies the real prince and they’re united in love as the curtain falls. It’s a confident score, its striking colours and rhythmic verve already hinting at the composer’s mature style, and Boulez, a conductor who was often accused of being rather cool, gives a splendid performance that generates both heat and light. In particular, he brings out the dance elements, also building the drama ln a way that few rivals can manage. The coupling on my CD is an equally accomplished Cantata Profana.

Mindful that the bar has been set so high - perhaps insurmountably so - I spent a fair bit of time with the Alsop and Mälkki recordings. Both conductors take a lyrical view of the work, with Alsop the more pliant and theatrical of the two. Moreover, the BSO, warmly recorded, play very well for her. Not the most urgent or incisive performance, but an immensely likeable/danceable one nonetheless. By contrast, Mälkki’s reading, meticulously prepared and executed, seems oddly prosaic, with little insight or sense of cumulative excitement. Besides, the opening pages are nowhere near as gripping as they can be. Also, Bartók’s distinctive dance rhythms should be more alert and arresting than they are here. In short, this new Prince lacks variety and character, and that makes for a very long fifty-three minutes or so.

No qualms about the Helsinki orchestra’s playing, or Enno Mäemets’s sensibly scaled and balanced recording. And although the Naxos sound isn’t quite as good, it’s still pretty impressive. Of course, Alsop’s nuanced, colourful and briskly compelling performance is what really matters; in fact, hearing it alongside the Helsinki version has reminded me how good the Bournemouth one really is. (Pity there’s no filler, though.) As for Boulez’s taut, very muscular performance - the CSO sound truly ‘ripped’ - it’s every bit as thrilling as I remembered it. (Indeed, the opening has never been better done.) A forensic reading - in the best sense - it’s also a big, no-holds-barred concert one, and that won’t please everyone. Those who prefer something more suited to the theatre should hear the Alsop, now, without doubt, my clear second choice for the work. Mälkki’s performance, although decent, just can’t compete with these two.

The Miraculous Mandarin, a sleazy take on greed, lust and the supernatural, caused something of a scandal at its Cologne premiere in 1926. One need only listen to Abbado or Boulez in the complete work to hear why, for this is a score that still has the power to unnerve its audience. Yes, the suite has its moments, with Mälkki and Gardner striking a good balance between impetus and insight. That said, the Melbourne performance is far more visceral - and rightly so. In fairness, the Finns are never less than committed - there’s some fine playing here - but if you want a good modern recording of this suite, vividly recorded, go for Gardner. The only downside there is that the accompanying all-Bartók programme is rather more variable.

Although well played and recorded, Mälkki’s Bartók lacks inspiration; look elsewhere.

Dan Morgan

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