This streamed event was welcome for its staged presentation of Bartók's The Wooden Prince, described by its composer as a "dancing play in one act."  Completed in 1917, it's the least known of Bartók's three masterpieces for the stage.  The work's relative obscurity is something of a mystery, because it's very audience-friendly while also containing many of the hallmarks of the composer's more mature style. 

The Wooden Prince in Budapest
© Gábor Valuska | Müpa Budapest

The Wooden Prince doesn't need dancers to be a success on musical terms.  And indeed, the Béla Balázs story of a prince whose love is rejected and later accepted by the princess – which is rather a thin plot to begin with – wasn't particularly well characterised in the choreography for this particular production.  There was plenty of athletic activity on the nearly bare stage, so much so that at times, it bordered on the chaotic.

Adding to the visual confusion was that the real-life prince and the princess were each performed by two dancers (as was the title role of the wooden prince).  That said, Vince Topolánszky (Real Prince #1), Miyu Takamori (Princess #1) and László Pavleszek (Wooden Prince #2) were particularly winsome in their portrayals of the leading characters.  All three were equal parts grace and elegance while also delivering plenty of forceful dancing in the more vigorous portions of the action. The role of the Fairy was portrayed by just one artist, Gvendolin Nagy, who was perfectly cast in this important role.

The music was given a ravishing performance by the István Szent Philharmonic under the direction of János Kovács. The score calls for the biggest orchestra in all of Bartók's music, including four bassoons, several saxophones plus an entire battery of percussion.  Kovács played up the rhythmic contrasts, enabling thrilling brass and timpani to punctuate the dramatic action, in the process bringing Bartok's score to such brilliant life that the music sometimes eclipsed the action on the stage.

János Kovács, Sebestyén Pellet and the Szent István Philharmonic
© Gábor Valuska | Müpa Budapest

With the impressive presentation of the Bartók, it would be difficult for any other works on the program to measure up.  But in another adventurous programming choice, Kovács presented Liszt's rarely performed symphonic poem Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe.  Music history credits Liszt with inventing the symphonic poem. While twelve of them were composed by Liszt in the 1850s and 60s, twenty years would pass before this final one appeared, by which time countless other composers were also writing in the form. Liszt's piece was inspired by a Mihály Zichy engraving which the composer set to music in three parts: The Cradle, The Struggle for Existence, and To the Grave.  While the second part provides the drama we expect to hear in Liszt, it is in the final section where he points to the future in phrases that stretch tonality.  While the triumphant Les Préludes may portend the glories of an afterlife, Von der Wiege ends quietly with a musical question mark. The Szent Philharmonic performance was quite moving, especially immediately following the middle section where the solo clarinets and bassoon usher in the final chapter.  The only drawback was an unfortunate page turn for the violins happening at the place of dead silence following The Struggle for Existence; it wasn't silent at all,  spoiling the effect.

The other Liszt offering was Totentanz, with its theme based on the famous Dies irae Gregorian chant. The piece is the exact opposite of the symphonic poem – so showy as to be exhibitionistic while surprisingly bereft of musical invention. With its over-repetition of the Dies irae theme and cheap-thrill glissando treatments, it's the least impressive of Liszt's piano concertante works. Pianist Sebestyén Pellet joined the orchestra in a performance that emphasised pyrotechnics and flourish, but Pellet also communicated notable poignancy in the few ruminative sections of the piece.  On the basis of this performance, Pellet seems highly suited for some of Liszt's more inspired creations where the pianist's impressive technical acumen could be used for more artistically rewarding ends.

This performance was reviewed from the Müpa Budapest livestream.