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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing