BARTÓK: The Wooden Prince. The Miraculous Mandarin: Concert Suite / Helsinki Philharmonic Orch.; Susanna Mälkki, cond / Bis SACD 2328
Since I don’t always get hard copies of SACDs to review, I often need to use streaming audio which, however high-definition, does not include the SACD layering that makes the physical recording a bit more special, thus in this review (as in many others) I can only deal with what I was able to hear.
The booklet points out that The Wooden Prince was composed in 1917 along with the second string quartet, but is considered to be less groundbreaking in its musical style. I would concur. Compared to two other stage works written shortly thereafter, Bluebeard’s Castle and The Miraculous Mandarin, the style and language of this ballet is more conventional, based much more on the late Romantic music of Scriabin and Debussy than Bartók own astringent, Magyar-folk-music-based style. True, it is an interesting score in and of itself—the notes compare it to Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande—and it is certainly valuable for those who would like to hear where Bartók came from prior to his more groundbreaking music, but in several places the music sounds just a bit too echt-Romantic. Bartók does not linger on these moments too much, and almost immediately starts livening things up with some dramatic music, darkly menacing timpani, and other such devices, but taken as a whole I personally prefer the suite reduction of this score to the full 53 minutes as presented here.
Susanna Mälkki, a conductor I do not know much about, does an excellent job with the music, however. The lyric passages have real sweep, the dramatic ones real bite, and the Helsinki Philharmonic plays splendidly for her. Even in the limited scope of high-def streaming, I could tell that Bis’s sound engineers did her proud. Every time the orchestra really opens up, there is almost a Cinemascope effect in the soundscape, spreading the full orchestral spectrum across the stereo channels with no loss of crispness. Whether due to the expertise of Mälkki, sound engineer Enno Maemets or both, one hears numerous details in the score that often elude the ear, and this also helps to engage the listener. As for pace, Mälkki is just a shade slower overall that Marin Alsop in her highly-praised Naxos recording of this work. I was very impressed.
With that being said, and recognizing the many excellent moments in this ballet, I felt that the score is a bit more episodic than The Miraculous Mandarin, which moves like greased lightning from start to finish. It is even more episodic than Schoenberg’s Pelleas to which it has been compared. It’s more like Stravinsky’s Firebird as opposed to Petrouchka, his first ballet score to be knit together tightly as it moved from scene to scene.
The 1927 suite from The Miraculous Mandarin (originally composed in 1924) only uses the first six scenes of the ballet. Although this is the form that concert-goers know best, it’s a work one must really hear complete to appreciate how exciting and innovative it was. Mälkki does a very fine job with the suite, however, adding a bit of lyricism to it not normally heard, and again the orchestra responds well, but for me it’s like hearing only the first two tableaux of Petrouchka. You get the feeling that, good as the experience is, you’re missing something…and you are.
For what it’s worth, in addition to being hugely talented, Susanna Mälkki is also drop-dead gorgeous, even more so than Eve Queler when she was young. With this extraordinary combination of talent and beauty, I predict she will go far.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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