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Wooden Prince: Hungarian Nutcracker

available at Amazon
Bartók, The Wooden Prince, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, M. Alsop

(released on March 25, 2008)
Naxos 8.570534

available at Amazon
Bartók, Orchestral Works, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer
Béla Bartók wrote, in a brief 1917 essay on The Wooden Prince, that he began work on this ballet score because his opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle had been overlooked by the Hungarian Royal Opera. The scenario, also written by his opera's librettist, Béla Balázs, was so close to the opera, a fairy tale given a modernist reading, that Bartók actually envisioned having both works performed on the same evening. After recording Bluebeard with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 2007, Marin Alsop offered the other side of the coin the following year with a single disc containing the entire ballet score of The Wooden Prince, rather than the suite that is sometimes played. The complete version is surely the best way to hear the piece, described by Bartók as "a symphonic poem to be danced to." The ballet certainly bears comparison to Stravinsky's Firebird, with the composer working his own kind of orchestrational magic in the many effects wrung out of an extravagant scoring (4 flutes, 4 oboes, 2 saxophones with one player doubling tenor and baritone, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, celesta, 2 harps) -- you can get some sense of the colors from the composer's own piano reduction.

The eponymous puppet is a simulacrum made by a real prince, with the "help" of a mysterious fairy who has her own designs on the prince, in an attempt to get a distant princess to notice him. The plot works -- too well, as the princess falls in love with the wooden prince, until it falls apart and the princess sees the real prince, now adorned by the fairy. After the work's premiere, Bartók wrote (quoted by Benjamin Suchoff) that the wooden puppet
symbolizes the creative work of the artist, who puts all of himself into his work until he has made something complete, shining, and perfect. The artist himself, however, is left robbed and poor. I was thinking of that very common and profound tragedy when the creation becomes the rival of the creator, and the pain and glory of the situation in which a woman prefers the poem to the poet, the picture to the painter.
The music is extraordinarily beautiful, ranging from the ethereally atmospheric (the C major unfolding in the opening, recalling the opening of Das Rheingold, or the melancholy saxophone and swirling flutes as the fairy enchants the stream) to the bold, sweeping evocation of the grandeur of nature as the fairy tries to comfort the Prince by allowing him to appreciate the forest's vastness in solitude (recalling the music for the opening of the fifth door in Bluebeard) to the bizarre characterizations of the unusual dances (the rumbles of timpani and low strings for the lumbering trees, or the grand, forte gestures of the Dance of the Waves).

Alsop has made a fine, if not faultless, recording of the work, not to be preferred over Pierre Boulez with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (DG) although it is about half the price. For roughly the same price, just as part of a economically priced 3-CD set, you might be better off gorging yourself on more of Bartók's orchestral music, as recorded by Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra. Even better, buy a ticket for one of the three performances by the National Symphony Orchestra this weekend (October 1 to 3) to see what Fischer does with the work live, the first time that the NSO has played the complete ballet score rather than the suite. Fischer pairs The Wooden Prince with another famous appreciation of nature, Beethoven's sixth symphony.


See Anne Midgette's review of the program ('Pastoral' and 'Prince' Flaunt NSO's Fischer, October 2) in the Washington Post.

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