Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin are – together with the earlier opera Bluebeard’s 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 Bartók’s 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.
Mälkki 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.
Naturally, a complex score such as The Wooden Prince requires an orchestra capable of extreme virtuosity, and the Helsinki Philharmonic provide this to the full under their newly appointed principal conductor. She guides them in a performance of expressive sweep and, where required, tenderness. The SACD recording, as is so often the case with BIS, is state of the art.
Stylistically, The Miraculous Mandarin occupies a much harsher, at times grating sound world, there being no hint of the former's misty impressionism. In 1927, shortly after the sole Cologne performance, Bartók published an orchestral suite comprising the first six stages of the work, and that is what we have here. The orchestra respond here with considerable virtuosity under Susanna Mälkki’s direction, and the recording copes admirably with Bartok’s glaring, lurid orchestration of the dissonant music.
– MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Wooden Prince, Op. 13/Sz 60 by Béla Bartók
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1914-1917; Budapest, Hungary
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