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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945) Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11 (1911-12)
Jerome Hines (bass) – Bluebeard
Rosalind Elias (mezzo-soprano) – Judith
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. 20 November 1960, Philadelphia. ADD Stereo SONY CLASSICAL 19075810782 [55:36]
Originally an LP released on Columbia Records in 1963, this magnificent recording made in 1960 has hitherto been unavailable on any commercial transfer to CD; my own copy until now has been an expert remastering onto CD by a gifted amateur sound engineer done as a private transaction for just my private use but it has now finally been released as part of a batch of remastered Sony issues. I am captivated by this work and have a dozen recordings of it on my shelves; this one is essential to any devotee of this extraordinary psychodrama and is all the more striking and accessible to Anglo-Saxons for being in English.
Of course, it's not the same as having the opera in the original Hungarian and the spoken Prologue from the poem by Bela Balázs is omitted, but this is nonetheless a very desirable adjunct to the famous, virtually contemporaneous (slightly later) recording by Kertész with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry - or indeed a modern recording by such as Solti or Fischer. There is another recommendable version in English issued by BBC Music Magazine in 1993 and conducted by Mark Elder, with that spoken Prologue, first hauntingly intoned in Hungarian by a male actor before a female voice takes over the narration in English and I miss that bonus here. The singers in that Elder recording were the excellent Gwynne Howell and Sally Burgess but Ormandy's Bluebeard and Judith are starrier: the great Metropolitan bass Jerome Hines, whose deep, resonant bass immediately makes the listener sit up, and rising mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias.
Ormandy is at home in this music and he has the virtuosity of the Philadelphia Orchestra at his command. The stereo sound is standard for the early sixties: mostly a good spread if occasionally a little cramped and tinny, but good enough to encompass the grandeur of the great C major blast as the fifth door swings open to reveal the vastness of Bluebeard's kingdom and the sighing winds are suitably arresting. There is only the faintest background hiss. Elias is expressive: insistent and demanding without being shrewish, while Hines chills the blood with his repeated ""Frightened?" and "For us both, be careful, Judith!" Elias has a lovely, firm voice; she only touches the top C at the climactic fifth door event - which is what the score demands, but I miss the prolongation of Ludwig's shocked, ecstatic shriek.
The playing from America’s premier orchestra of that era is superb and Ormandy is master of the score. There is no libretto but the singers’ English diction is pellucid, rendering that unnecessary.