Bartók: The Wooden Prince; The Miraculous Mandarin Suite


WQXR – Best Classical Recordings of 2019 

The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin are together with the earlier opera Bluebeards Castle the only stage works by Béla Bartók. They stand apart from the more abstract and often more explicitly folk-related character of the music that we primarily associate with the composer. They are nevertheless major achievements that in different ways highlight Bartóks imaginative use of the modern orchestra. Set in an enchanted forest, The Wooden Prince is based on a fairytale-like libretto featuring a prince and princess. The two are subjected to various trials, but at the end of the ballet they are allowed to come together and live we assume happily ever after. In stark contrast, The Miraculous Mandarin takes place in an urban brothel where three robbers force a girl to seduce men so that they can overpower and kill them. The subject-matter and the erotic qualities of much of the music caused a scandal at the première in 1926, and for a long time the score was primarily performed in the shorter concert version heard on the present release, the first from the team of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Susanna Mälkki, the orchestra’s chief conductor since 2016.

Critical Acclaim

“I wish this disc could have accommodated a complete Miraculous Mandarin rather than just the Concert Suite, particularly as Susanna Mälkki’s reading has much to offer. She elicits brilliant, rhythmically disciplined playing from the Helsinki Philharmonic; and although her depiction of urban din in the opening minutes lacks the raucous ferocity of Dorati’s justly famous mid-1950s account (and whose doesn’t?), her careful attention to dynamic gradations lays bare a wealth of textural and colouristic detail. Note how she even finds a hint of tunefulness in the biting rhythmic string figure starting at 0’39”.

Mälkki is also a fine storyteller who brings the characters vividly to life – the pompous old rake, the timid student and especially the mysterious central female figure. The girl’s shy first dance for the Mandarin is really delicately drawn, for instance, with ravishingly (and Ravelian) diaphanous strings (listen at 0’41” on track 18). I have a hunch Mälkki would be in her element in the Mandarin’s eerie final scenes (excised from the Suite); but the abbreviated version makes room for The Wooden Prince and this stunning performance makes the trade off worthwhile.”


“Bartók’s The Wooden Prince is a one-off in the composer’s output, an evocative, expansive ballet score that will surprise anyone who’s been intimidated by his more abrasive music. Based on a scenario devised Béla Balácz, with whom Bartók had collaborated on Bluebeard’s CastleThe Wooden Prince is softer-edged, a verdant fairytale following a lovestruck prince’s pursuit of a princess. Frustrated at her disinterest, he creates a puppet substitute which is given life by a mischievous fairy. The score’s first few minutes are dazzling, a folk-tinged retread of Das Rheingold’s opening, the ensuing music blending ardent romanticism with the grotesque. There are so many delectable moments, my favourite being the Princess’s giddy rushing to meet her wooden suitor, his clumsy, mechanical dancing portrayed to perfection. Love predictably wins out, Bartók’s closing pages a glorious depiction of a benign, wooded landscape. Recordings are disappointingly thin on the ground, so it’s good to report that Susanna Mälkki’s quick-witted Helsinki Philharmonic performance is outstanding, and sumptuously engineered to boot.

Mälkki’s coupling is the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, played with plenty of ferocity and abandon. I’d forgotten how much of this score sounds like a far darker variant of Bartók’s upbeat, contemporaneous Dance Suite: the deafening trombone blasts depicting the Mandarin’s arrival virtually quoted in the shorter work. As with Stravinsky‘s Rite, the brilliance of the music goes hand in hand with a fairly unpleasant scenario; this music is thrilling even if you’re unaware of what it’s depicting.”

Graham Rickson, The Arts Desk

“The ballet Le Prince de bois has never been included in the concert repertoire and it is still quite rare on CD. It must be said that its hybrid aspect with reminiscences of Wagner, Strauss or Debussy combined with its length (nearly 50 minutes) are challenges for the conductor who must bring out the originality of the composer while not losing sight of the influences…Susanna Mälkki, experienced in the most modern music, degreases the orchestral mass by pulling it more towards Debussy than Strauss while the instrumental colors look towards the Sibelius of symphonic poems by their adaptability in a flexible narrative flow.”

Pierre Jean Tribot, June 2019

“Suunnitellusta kolmen Bartók-levyn sarjasta Helsingin kaupunginorkesteri avaa BIS-yhteistyönsä Puinen prinssi -baletilla ja Ihmeellinen mandariini -orkesterisarjalla. Susanna Mälkki tekee teoksista huolelliset, maltillisesti karakterisoidut ja soinnillisesti kevyet tulkinnat, joita samanhenkinen äänitsys korostaa.

Satuaiheiseen Puinen prinssi se sopii paremmin, mutta aikansa kohuteos, väkivaltaa ja bordelliseksiä yhdistelevä Ihmeellinen mandariini vaatisi monin kohdin brutaalimman otteen. Kauniisti esiin pääsevät erikoiset sointivärit ja sointiyhdistelmät, ja tärkeimpiin huipennuksiinkin löytyy vihdoin vauhtia ja ytyä.”

Helsingin Sanomat

“The Helsinki Philharmonic and Music Director Susanna Malkki tell their story through astute, sensitive phrasing, with a subtle give and take that makes the work compelling and absorbing.”

American Record Guide

“Aided by BIS’s warm, detailed sound, the Helsinki orchestra makes the most of this colorful orchestral tapestry, and its ChiefConductor Susanna Melkki proves herselfadept at ballet. Through her shaping of the score she tells a specific story complete with dramatic climaxes, and in her hands, the dances sound eminentiy danceable.”


“L’Orchestre philharmonique de Helsinki et sa directrice musicale, Susanna Malkki, s’emparent avec bonheur de ces musiques de scène. Elles débordent de couleurs et d’énergie?

Raison de plus pour en ciseler les détails, les nuances, affirmer les caractères et soigner la clarté des plans sonores. Le résultat est enchanteur.”


“Avec ce disque, la maestra Susanna Mälkki signe ses débuts discographies avec son Orchestre Philharmonique d’Helsinki, tande, dont on avait pu apprécier la qualité lors du dernier festival Beethoven de Varsovie.

Un grand disque à tous les points de vue !”

Crescendo Magazine

“HSO:s första skiva med chefsdirigenten Susanna Mälkki, samtidigt den första i en utlovad Bartóktrilogi för BIS, bådar alltså gott för framtiden.”


“Übersicht statt Expressivität schon im organisch aus dem Nichts anwachsenden Crescendo der Introduktion des “Prinzen” wird deutlich, dass Susanna Mälkki hier weniger den Bürgerschreck Bartók mit seinen drastischen Modernismen in den Vordergrund stellt, sondern eher den raffinierten Instrumentator und Erschaffer orchestraler Tableaus. Besonders im Surroundmodus reiht sich so ein farblich schillerndes Szenario an das nächste, sodass der Hörer sich immer wieder verblüfft fragt, wie Bartók die orchestrale Bühne derart mit ungeahnt sinnlichen Instrumentalkombinationen zu füllen versteht. Ermöglicht wird dies in erster Hinsicht durch Mälkkis souverän ausbalancierte Gestaltung, durch die jeder Instrumentengruppe und jedem Solo genug Platz eingeräumt wird, sowie durch das Klangbild, das den imaginären Sitz des Hörers im Helsinki Music Centre in übersichtlicher Distanz vom Orchester verortet. Vergleicht man Mälkkis Zugriff jedoch mit dem eines Zoltán Kocsis oder Iván Fischer, beide mit renommierten ungarischen Klangkörpern, merkt man jedoch, dass dieser‚ Logensitz‘ eine gewisse Einbuße an Expressivität mit sich bringt.”

Klassik Magazine

“This ending has music of even greater orgiastic abandon than we encounter in the suite, but even here the terse ferocity of the music graphically prefigures the eventual outcome. The orchestra respond with considerable virtuosity to Susanna Mälkki’s direction, and the recording copes admirably with Bartok’s glaring, lurid orchestration of the dissonant music.”

Musicweb International

“In den sieben Tänzen und sechs verbindenden Sätzen des Prinzen entwickelt Mälkki eine die dunklen Seiten beleuchtende Sicht auf das Werk, die allein schon wegen ihrer oftmals zurückgenommenen Dynamik die Nackenhaare sich aufstellen lässt. Dagegen setzt sie nicht auf effekthascherische Überbetonung gruseliger Klänge, sondern lässt das Orchester immer stilvoll spielen.”