Double Play: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on...Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle Anne Sofie von Otter, John Tomlinson Berlin Philharmonic / Haitink (EMI 5 56162 2)

'This performance was recorded live, which gives it an edge, an interactive tension. But it isn't reflected in the character of the orchestra' 'Haitink's manner is spacious, on the whole reflective and atmospheric rather than urgent ... the sense of psychological undertow is intermittent'
"Where is the stage: outside or inside, ladies and gentlemen?" The speaker (Sandor Eles) bids us open our eyes and look beyond the play into ourselves. Who knows what we may find hidden there, in dreams, in fears. In secret. And Bartok stirs in the lower strings of the Berlin Philharmonic raising the curtain of our imagination. It's all in the mind. When Judith asks "Is this really Bluebeard's Castle? Why no windows? No sweet daylight?" and murmuring string arpeggios recede into shadow, it is not just her curiosity but ours, too, that deepens. Which is why Bluebeard's Castle remains the gramophone opera. This performance was recorded live, which gives it an edge, an interactive tension. But it isn't reflected in the character of the orchestra - Bartok's main protagonist, creator and executant of the mise en scene. An edge is what the Bartok sound needs: sinew, rhythmic tension, a wiry, febrile quality. A streak of brilliance. The Solti factor. Bernard Haitink's Berlin Philharmonic is too blended, too homogeneous. For sure, the sombreness of their decor, the richness of their lyric enticements leave little to the imagination. The jewelled crown room, the garden of delight, the lake of tears - these are handsome evocations, sumptuously recorded. And that fifth door: Bruckner is the key there. Bruckner writ large, larger, largest. Judith's initial response to that is stunned silence. Anne Sofie von Otter carries it over into the words. She sounds lost. She is lost. Her insatiable curiosity costs her everything. Von Otter is of a slighter vocal timbre than is customary for Judith, but time and again she turns it to her advantage. Vulnerability, tenderness, compassion are not generally qualities we associate with Judith. But they are the greater part of her, and Von Otter keeps them at the forefront of her characterisation. Her line readings are always revealing. The colour of a single word can turn around the emotion. From insecure to defensive to petulant, her volatility is entirely believable. John Tomlinson's proud, even arrogant Bluebeard has the world-weary air of a man who knows that he can never put the past behind him. His repetition of the word "Felsze?" ("Frightened?") is at once threatening and hopeful. Maybe this time his secrets will remain under lock and key. Maybe this time he will find unconditional love. But in the final scene, as he once more resigns himself to the memory of his previous wives, heartbreak, regret, solitude are all that remain for him.

Tomlinson is marvellous here, though even he must yield to Fischer-Dieskau in the classic Ferenc Fricsay recording (unfortunately in German) on DG. Listen to Fricsay or, better yet, Kertesz (with Ludwig and Berry on Decca) after Haitink, and you'll hear that it's the Hungarian temperament and not digital technology that ultimately sets Bartok alight. ES

If ever there were a double-edged wedding present, it is Bluebeard's Castle. Bluebeard brings his new wife, Judith, to his dank, gloomy fortress. She is sure her love can transform it, and insists on opening the seven mysterious locked doors. Bluebeard protests, but then begins to hope that she really might redeem him and his castle together. But the revelations grow more sinister, and the last door brings Judith face to face with Bluebeard's three former wives, alive, richly dressed, yet somehow dead. Judith joins them and Bluebeard is left in darkness.

What conclusion was Bartok's Marta meant to draw from this? That the innermost secrets of the self are incommunicable - or something more like William Blake's "Never pain to tell thy love, love that never told can be"? Or, simply, curiosity killed the cat? Whatever, there is something uniquely revealing about Bluebeard. And it is difficult to think of another major Bartok work that is as musically inclusive as this: Pelleas is acknowledged, Lulu anticipated; the intellectual focus and distilled Hungarian folk elements of the later Bartok are here, and yet the youthful very late- romanticism hasn't yet been completely banished. Never again did Bartok allow all seven doors to be opened at once.

This new recording is the kind that sets you thinking. Haitink's manner is spacious, on the whole reflective and atmospheric rather than urgent. The sense of psychological undertow, so compelling in the Fischer (Hungaroton) version, is more intermittent here. On the other hand, that spaciousness can be very effective: at the opening of the fifth door, where Bluebeard's kingdom is revealed in all its immensity, or even more effectively in the "Lake of Tears" section, the silences rarely so telling. John Tomlinson is magnificent as Bluebeard; the sheer sound of his voice is loaded with expression, but the subtlety of his phrasing and colouring effectively adds another dimension. And there is plenty to admire in Anne Sofie von Otter's Judith, but is there the necessary warmth - is this really a young woman who thinks her love can bring light to the sunless? That's my only substantial reservation. This is a remarkable performance and the end is really chilling - perhaps it isn't surprising that Bartok never wrote another opera after Bluebeard. SJ