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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11 / BB 62 (1911, rev. 1912, 1917-1918)
Opera in one Act, libretto by Béla Balázs
Duke Bluebeard - Mika Kares (bass)
Judit - Szilvia Vörös (mezzo)
Narrator - Géza Szilvay
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki
rec. January 2020, Helsinki Music Centre (public performance and additional sessions)
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet includes libretto (Hungarian & English)
BIS BIS-2388 SACD [59:54]

My portal to this, Bartók’s only opera, was the István Kertész/LSO LP, recorded in 1965 (Decca). And what a revelation it was, the young Hungarian conductor and his A-list singers – Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry – at their considerable best. As for Kenneth Wilkinson’s recording, much praised at the time, it sounds as good today as it did then. But, most important, Kertész and his committed team revealed just how remarkable – how imaginative – a score this really is. This remained my favourite Bluebeard until I heard Bernard Haitink’s bar-raising performance, recorded live with the Berliner Philharmoniker in November 1996 (Warner). The Dutchman – not always the most dramatic of conductors – really turned up the wick with this one. He was aided and abetted in this magnificent enterprise by two fine singers – Anne Sofie von Otter, John Tomlinson – and first-class engineering. (The Philharmonie organ sounds spectacular too.) This is now the one to beat.

The three Bluebeard recordings I’ve reviewed in recent years are something of a mixed bag. First up is Marin Alsop’s 2007 version with the Bournemouth Symphony. And while the performance burns with a comparatively low flame it remains curiously compelling (Naxos). Next up is a video, filmed in 1981 but only released in 2008. It features Sylvia Sass and Kolos Kováts miming to their audio recording, made with Sir Georg Solti and the LPO. Lip-sync issues and a slightly dated production notwithstanding, this DVD certainly has some very striking visuals (Decca). And finally, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Philharmonia performance, recorded live in Vienna in 2011 (Signum). This one certainly has its moments, but otherwise it lacks coherence or conviction. Besides, the singers – Michelle DeYoung and John Tomlinson – are very disappointing, the latter, so commanding for Haitink, especially so.

Susanna Mälkki, the Finnish chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic since 2016, came to my attention with her BIS recording of Bartók’s ballet-pantomimes: The Wooden Prince is presented in its entirety, The Miraculous Mandarin in suite form (review). Although both are well played and recorded, the performances lack urge and inspiration. That said, a preliminary listen to the 24-bit download suggested Mälkki’s Bluebeard might be rather good. Indeed, the spoken prologue, atmospherically delivered by Géza Szilvay, soon draws the listener deep into the heart of this darkly fascinating fable. (What a pity Kertész omits this narration.) As early as the Opening Scene and First Door, it’s clear Mälkki is highly receptive to Bartók’s more unsettling timbres and textures. That explains, in part at least, why this version sounds so fresh and varied. Of course, Enno Mäemets’s detailed, wonderfully transparent recording – so naturally balanced – also has a key role to play here. As for the lightish voices of Szilvia Vörös (Judit) and Mika Kares (Bluebeard), they’re well-suited to what soon feels like an unusually intimate performance.

I daresay Mälkki’s passion for contemporary classical music – she’s given a number of Finnish and world premieres – and her experience with ensembles such as the COE, inform her approach to Bluebeard. Indeed, she colours and articulates Bartók’s quieter moments with consummate skill and sensitivity. So much so, I became aware of details and contours I’d not heard before. (The HPO’s refined and responsive playing is invaluable in this regard.) Then again, this conductor seems far more comfortable with the inner workings of this psycho-drama than she is with the overt, even atavistic milieux of Bartók’s ballet-pantomimes.

Make no mistake, the Finn knows just when to ratchet up the tension a notch or three. And while Vörös doesn’t have the dramatic intensity of von Otter, she copes very well with the demands of her role. I’m less sure about Kares, who, despite an assured performance, lacks the sheer presence of Tomlinson at his best. As for Mälkki, when she flings open the Fifth Door, Vörös’s scream - for that’s what it is - is simply hair-raising. But it’s the organ that has the greatest impact here, the quite magnificent Helsinki instrument putting the Berlin one to shame. For me, this really is one of the greatest moments in all opera, the perfectly pitched summation of a masterly score. And while the rest can seem anticlimactic, that doesn’t begin to diminish my enjoyment of the piece as a whole. As always, BIS complete the package with excellent notes, and, in this case, a legible, attractively presented libretto. (Note to downloaders: that’s a whole lot more than you’ll get with the premium-priced Haitink and Kertész files.)

Although Mälkki’s Bluebeard doesn’t supplant the best in the catalogue, it deserves a place alongside them; as for the sound, it’s well up to the high standards of the house.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Ralph Moore



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