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'
Friday 13 September 1996
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
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