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.

“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