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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Bluebeard’s Castle (1918) [59.07]
Klára Takács (mezzo) – Judith: Kolos Kováts (baritone) – Bluebeard: Ralph-Jürgen Misske and Antal Doráti, speakers
Junge Dedutsche Philharmonie/Antal Doráti
rec. Philharmonie Köln, 26 April 1987

The notes for this valuable series of reissues state that “Under the title ‘Antal Doráti live’ we are … issuing a series of concert performances including works Doráti did not record in the studio”. This live recording is shown as receiving its “first release on CD” although I cannot trace that it has been previously available in any medium. In fact however the conductor did record Bartók’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle commercially for Mercury in 1962, a recording that received considerable accolades at the time. That LP featured two Hungarian singers, but neither were in their freshest voice; the veteran Bluebeard adopted a number of Bartók’s lower options on his high notes. Later recordings with less Slavonic western voices under István Kertesz and Pierre Boulez effectively eclipsed this earlier version which had disappeared from the catalogues by the end of the 1970s. That makes this release, presumably taken from radio broadcast tapes, all the more valuable.

Once again Doráti employed Hungarian singers, to the advantage of their engagement with the text. Kolos Kováts also recorded his role with Solti some ten years earlier, a reading that was issued not only on LP (and later on CD) but also in video format – a filmed version that remains the most recommendable of the versions currently available on DVD. On that DVD his placid features rather undermined the urgency of his appeals to Judith, but in sound terms one can luxuriate in the richness of his tones and his ease throughout the extended range demanded by the composer.

Here he is joined by Klára Takács (spelt Takáks in the booklet material here) in a role that Bartók designated for soprano but which is frequently undertaken by mezzos. There is some justification for this – parts of the role lie low in the soprano register – but the composer does ask his singer to attack an unprepared top C at the climax of the score, and this can frequently put a strain on mezzos in live performances. Not so here, where Takács simply omits the note altogether, with a decided loss of impact as the C major chord depicting Bluebeard’s kingdom is declaimed at full volume by the orchestra. Better that than a strained mezzo ringing out below the note, or cutting its duration short with a frightened squawk, I suppose. It does however give the listener an uncomfortable feeling — rather like stepping on a stair that is missing.

Bartók’s score opens with a spoken prologue, frequently omitted in performance but necessary to create the right atmosphere as the opening phrases steal in under the final words of the narrator. Here the prologue is given in German - although the sung text is Hungarian, a fact not made clear in the booklet information. This has been substantially rewritten from Béla Balázs’s original by Gisella Betzel-Doráti, giving us a synopsis of the plot which is far less effective than the evocation of symbolism that is found in the Hungarian. This need not however deter anybody except German speakers. The voices are placed rather too close to the microphones than is desirable – the orchestra sounds relatively distant in comparison, which reduces the impact of their excellent playing – but no more so than in the Sawallisch studio recording issued eight years earlier. There are a few problems of balance, most notably when the glittering tuned percussion and celesta in the scene in the treasury are obscured by the quiet sustained brass chords. The thundering timpani chords just before the lake of tears is revealed lack the impact achieved by Kertész at this point although it is not clear that this is what Bartók really wanted at this point. Nor is the effect of the “cavernous sighing, as when the night wind moans down endless gloomy labyrinths” realised with much sense of drama, teetering here on the brink of inaudibility.

Nonetheless, and despite these reservations, this recording is valuable for giving us Doráti’s dramatic and fast-flowing view of the score. Time and again passages that can simply fragment or fall apart are bound together in a unity that leads the listener onward to the shatteringly tragic climax. Perhaps the still-born love music for Bluebeard and Judith could be more warmly romantic, and Takács occasionally topples over from insistent curiosity into outright shrewishness. Doráti shows a willingness to relax in places where other conductors plough straight ahead, and he gathers all his strength for the horrendous passage where Judith, “bowed down by the weight of her cloak”, follows Bluebeard’s other wives into the oblivion of his memory. The applause at the end, which one imagines would have been substantial, has thankfully been edited out, and indeed audible contributions from the audience — one cough during the prologue apart — are undetectable.

This would not be recommendable as the sole version of Bluebeard’s Castle in anyone’s library – Bluebeard has been a very lucky opera on record – but it is far from an inconsiderable one, and we should be most grateful to the Antal Doráti Centenary Society for making it commercially available. There are no texts or translations, essential to the understanding of such a psychologically taut drama as this, but these can be obtained elsewhere. More serious is the lack of any individual tracks, which make it impossible to listen to any selected passages in isolation. Then the composer and librettist would doubtless have been horrified that anybody should wish to do so in the context of such a tightly-knit work. The ending of the opera brought, as usual, tears to my eyes – as any good performance of Bluebeard’s Castle should.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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