Béla Balász’s libretto for Bartók’s 1914-16 ballet The Wooden Prince is fairly straightforward. It tells of the tribulations of a prince and a princess who live in castles on either side of a forest. They fall for each other, but the forest fairy is determined to keep them apart.
The title comes from the strange stick puppet the prince adorns with his own hair, which finally gets the princess’s attention, but at the expense of the prince himself. The ultimately successful fairy-induced transformation sees the prince radiant and the princess desolate, tired of the now malfunctioning puppet. Only when she cuts her own hair and throws away her crown are prince and princess ready to unite.
Balász’s concern was the situation “when an act of creation becomes a rival of the creator” and “the painful glory when a woman prefers the poems to the poet, the picture to the painter”.
The music is much softer in outline than the more familiar later Bartók, often impressionistic, with the tensions of character and plot finely played out between delicacy and dissonance. The 1923 Dance Suite is famous as a rhythmically chunky, invigorating white-knuckle ride. Refined understatement is the order of the day in Cristian Măcelaru’s slow-burning account of the ballet and svelte approach to the suite.