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

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine