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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle Op.11 BB 62 (1911, revised 1912-18)
Bluebeard, John Relyea (bass); Judith, Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2018, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
SACD/CD Hybrid, Stereo/Surround 5.0, reviewed in surround

Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle did not come into being easily. Béla Balázs intended the libretto for Kodály but it was Kodály’s friend Bartók who was motivated to compose the work. Kodály later said of the opera that it was “a musical volcano erupting for sixty minutes of tragic intensity.” Balázs and Bartók had a difficult time cooperating and despite working on The Wooden Prince ballet they rapidly became estranged. Later Balázs complained bitterly that his role in the composition had been ignored. The subject matter caused controversy on several levels and the music itself occupied the composer on and off over a period of years as the above dates show. Initial critical reaction was decidedly mixed: “One cannot call this work an opera. As its content shows, no poorer subject was ever given to a composer … Its only value is that the opening of doors gives the opportunity for musical depiction.” The composer himself, by contrast, was later to refer to, “one of the best opera texts ever written.”

Bartók finished the initial version in 1911 but tinkered with it between 1912 and 1918, mostly preoccupied with how to end the piece. The actual musical ending bothered him as much as the plot ending and it was this that filled his periods of revision. His last significant revision was to expand the score and allow Judith and Bluebeard, for the only time, to sing together. Significantly for the narrative and its subtext, this was just at the moment when, wearing the starry mantle always destined for her, Judith walks through the seventh door to join the other wives. This was merely the most recent adaptation of the many that had been made since Charles Perrault’s 17th Century original. For Bartók, Judith ends up incarcerated with the previous wives but she might equally have discovered their dead bodies, had Bluebeard murdered and lived happily ever after (as in Perrault) or even simply left the castle, as in one of several further endings. Paul Griffiths, in his liner notes, discusses this in as much depth as space allows but leaves one wanting more. I am unsurprised that entire books have been written on the genesis of this unique opera.

The Bergen orchestra under Edward Gardner and the two highly regarded singers are well up to the task of singing and playing Bartók’s complex score and Chandos have provided them with a dynamic and spacious recording. The booklet has a complete libretto in parallel Hungarian/English translation along with, as mentioned, good notes. But this disc is up against stiff competition both as a performance and as a surround recording. Because of Bartók’s subtle use of the orchestra, the clarity of the latter helps to inform the quality of the former. Additionally, the Hungarian libretto is by default hard to follow unless you speak the language. Next to Finnish, to which it is linguistically and lexically related, Hungarian is hard to follow. The more the sung words are clearly captured by the microphones the better able one is to stay with the story and with Bartók’s wonderful, underpinning orchestral narrative.

The key competition is from Iván Fischer’s SACD (Philips 2003 then re-issued on Channel Classics in 2011), Dorati’s 1962 Mercury recording and István Kertész’s 1966 Decca recording – EMG’s The Monthly Letter of May 1966 believed it ‘eclipsed’ all previous recommendations including, one assumes, Dorati. I have listened extensively to all three and can say with some confidence that the challenge they pose is overwhelming. Fischer propels the score with enough extra energy to finish it three and a half minutes sooner than Gardner. His engineers provide considerably more detail, notably from the percussion, without losing the perspective and spaciousness of this vast orchestra. The fifth door, for example, is still more spinetingling as a result. Fischer’s cast are both native Hungarians and thus singing their own language. Gardner’s cast are North American and I doubt either speak the language so are probably working from a transliteration.

Dorati too, has Hungarian singers, has a stereo-only recording made on three track tape, and 35mm film, back in the glory-days of Mercury recording. Even on CD the result is still pretty stunning despite the limitations of tape saturation and the digital limitations of a 1992 A to D transfer. Why, as an aside, did this never make it onto three-track SACD when so many other famous discs were remastered a few years back? As for the performance, I think they must have come close to endangering Watford Town Hall when they completed the performance three minutes faster again than Fischer. The urgency of Dorati’s version is breath-taking. He reveals the uneasy rhythms beneath the musical textures, this is the Bartók of the Concerto for Orchestra and even the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. I should note for accuracy’s sake that Mercury did not include the spoken prologue or even print it in the booklet. Fischer and Gardner both include it.

Kertész has the benefit of two great singers in Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig and the LSO at the peak of its power at that period (it has had other peaks since). Of course neither singer is Hungarian and it is true the text is not as clear as either Fischer or Dorati. The conductor takes even longer than Gardner, even without the spoken prologue, but it still sounds passionate and driven. I do not think the recording, in its legends remastering, now 20 years old, sounds as good as Dorati and certainly trails the magnificent Fischer recording.

Compared to any of these Gardner’s performance sounds so careful. Even the famous fifth door, loud though it is, is somehow muted. As for the two fine singers, Relyea and DeYoung, one cannot actually hear them properly. The wish for spaciousness seems to have overwhelmed the surround mix. I am aware what a curious statement this is when I have only recently suggested that the same recording team’s Korngold disc is perhaps the best recorded orchestra I have heard. This is a different venue of course but I have not previously noticed a problem with Bergen’s lovely Grieghallen. The higher-level stereo mix is better at vocal clarity and indeed in revealing orchestral detail, but it still is not up to either of the other issues. That statement also raises questions as to the priorities of the mastering team that the stereo is better than the surround on a medium, SACD, dedicated to one key advance – surround sound.

I so wanted to recommend Gardner’s performance but I am afraid I can only summon muted enthusiasm. Go to Dorati for sheer drama and to Fischer for the finest surround combined with more intense musical direction.

Dave Billinge

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