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Bartók: Bluebeard's Castle - Mälkki

Bartók: Bluebeard's Castle - Mälkki

BIS  BIS 2388

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Opera


Bartók: Bluebeard's Castle

Mika Kares (Duke Bluebeard)
Szilvia Vörös (Judit)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki (conductor)


Composed in 1911, Bluebeard's Castle is Béla Bartók's only opera - a radical masterpiece which has secured a place alongside the other innovative music dramas of the same period, from Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande to Berg's Wozzeck. Planning to write a one-act opera, Bartók settled on a libretto by Béla Balázs with the kind of surreal and / or macabre themes that would soon feature in his two ballets, The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin. The main source for the libretto text was a play by Maeterlinck, a retelling of Perrault's gruesome tale of Barbe-Bleue, the sinister yet strangely seductive wife-killer.

Balázs turned the drama into what he called a 'mystery play', however, and his stylization of the story throws the weight of the drama onto stage-setting and music. The single act centers on the successive opening of the castle's seven doors, and Bartók's music brings across the horrors of the blood-drenched torture chamber, the steely power of the armory and the glitter of jewels in the treasury as well as the interplay of increasingly feverish questionings from Judit and defiant responses from Bluebeard. Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra have already proved their Bartók credentials with a disc of his ballet scores which was chosen as Record of the Week in BBC Radio 3 Record Review and earned top marks in Diapason and on the website Klassik-Heute. Joined by Mika Kares as Duke Bluebeard and his Judit.

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Review by Graham Williams - April 15, 2021

Bartók’s only opera Bluebeard’s Castle is something of a rarity on the stages of the world’s opera houses partly due its lack of dramatic action and having just two singing roles. It has, however, fared exceptionally well on disc for many years and continues to do so. Currently there are five versions available on SACD or Blu-ray including this latest one. In order of age they are – Kertesz (remastered from 1965), Fischer (2003), Gergiev (2009), Gardner (2019) and now Mälkki (2020).

I very much enjoyed Susanna Mälkki’s thoughtful pacing of the score, one that is marginally more measured than those on the other recordings mentioned above and, on the evidence here, is of considerable benefit to one’s appreciation of this marvellous music. She ensures that every strand of Bartók’s glittering orchestration makes its mark, aided by magnificent playing from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and, as the arching drama unfolds from darkness to light and back to darkness, she builds the tension with unerring skill. The justly famous opening of the fifth door, a blazing C major orchestral tutti with organ that typifies Bluebeard’s expansive domains, is conveyed as an overwhelming and truly majestic experience in Mälkki’s hands. Elsewhere she illuminates the composer’s evocative opening of each of the remaining doors through both the thrilling and incisive performances she elicits from her fine musicians.

Of course, the conducting is only one part of the full realisation of Bartók’s compelling psycho-drama on disc. The singing of the two protagonists is of equal importance. Finnish bass Mika Kares is a noble and youthful sounding Bluebeard. His firm vocal delivery and clear enunciation of the text is most impressive. His Judit is the young Hungarian mezzo-soprano Szilvia Vörös who, the liner notes tell us, studied with Éva Marton at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. She has a clear, youthful voice and sings most expressively. Unfortunately, in a couple of the most climactic passages her tone becomes forced with a pronounced beat, as she battles to compete with the orchestra in full cry. Thankfully this is rare and does not spoil the overall favourable impression of her interpretation, though I am left wondering whether, at this stage of her promising career, this role is a tad too heavy for her.

Then there is the question of the opera’s spoken Prologue. Many versions omit it altogether leaving the listener to read the words for themselves in the (hopefully provided) libretto. On Gergiev’s recording, it is spoken in Peter Bartók’s English translation by Willard White who sings Bluebeard. Gardner, Fischer and Mälkki sensibly opt for the original Hungarian. Here the ‘Bard’ is Géza Szilvay the Hungarian violinist, teacher and conductor who convincingly sets the scene in an appropriately confidential manner though he does seem to be recorded a fraction too closely.

The opera was recorded in January 2020 at public performances and additional sessions at the Helsinki Music Centre. As usual the BIS engineering of this 24-bit 96kHz multi-channel 5.0 SACD is exemplary. Producer Robert Suff and Enno Mäemets – a name familiar as the engineer for many SACDs on the Ondine label – have captured both the fine acoustic of the Helsinki concert hall and Susanna Mälkki’s compelling account of the work with stunning veracity.

In the liner notes BIS provides a full (Hungarian / English) libretto and insightful notes on the work by Arnold Whittall.

In short, this recording is a marvellous addition to this work’s already impressive discography.

Copyright © 2021 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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