Bartok: Cantata profana; The Wooden Prince

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Cantata profana; The Wooden Prince
PERFORMER: John Aler (tenor), John Tomlinson (baritone) ; Chicago SO &Chorus/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 435 863-2 DDD
Bartók’s first ballet has roughly the same place in his output as The Firebird has in Stravinsky’s: it’s a colourful fairytale told in a late-Romantic idiom, which nevertheless contains many ingredients of the composer’s later style. The orchestration is highly imaginative, complete with col legno (with the wood, ie, the backs of their bows) strings and a xylophone to suggest the awkward puppet of the title.

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Boulez gives us a typically vivid account of the score, with every detail in its proper place. The magic forest shimmers beautifully, thanks to the super-refined Chicago strings. Boulez succumbs to the sensuousness of the dance of homage before the Prince, but he does pull a few punches in the more violent passages.

No such charge could be levelled against Neeme Järvi, whose complete recording with The Philharmonia is much less afraid of the grotesque side to Bartók’s music. Sadly it is also less well played and recorded than the Chicago SO’s performance under Pierre Boulez.

Coincidentally, Chandos has just released a ‘selection’ from the ballet – about two-thirds of it, in fact – arranged by Neeme Järvi. It is coupled with the recognised suite from The Miraculous Mandarin which is full of life, but I found it a bit of a scramble in the final chase and fight.

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The Wooden Prince is much better complete, and DG also throws in a substantial coupling on their disc. The strange and elusive Cantata profana receives an excellent performance from the Chicago Symphony Chorus and two characterful soloists. If the balance were a bit kinder to the choir, it would be ideal. Stephen Maddock