Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: Signum Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
WORKS: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
PERFORMER: John Tomlinson, Michelle DeYoung, Juliet Stevenson; Philharmonia Voices; Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
CATALOGUE NO: SIGCD 372

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Bartók’s sole opera, composed when he was barely 30, sounds like the work of a much older man, so deep is its humanity and compassion. The twin shades of Richard Strauss’s expansive, overheated Salome-ish writing and the concision of Debussy’s vocal lines in Pelléas et Mélisande are both powerful influences; still, the opera’s enigmatic nature, rooted in its Symbolist text by Béla Balázs, wears no thinner with time, its razor-sharp perception and taut construction offers a woody inner strength that is Bartók’s alone.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, wielding the baton in this live performance from the Konzerthaus, Vienna, in 2011, drives the score with a terse sense of focus, radiating out from its firm skeleton. Thus orchestral matters stay on a fairly tight rein in emotional terms; that territory belongs to the singers.

Michelle DeYoung is a sensuous and impassioned Judith; the instantly recognisable Sir John Tomlinson as her Bluebeard has such force of personality, though, that he can’t help but dominate the proceedings. His vibrato may be erratic and his degree of finesse on the wane, but the younger woman’s relationship with a much older man with an unfathomable past is, after all, the point of the story; and the pair bring their tragedy to life with enormous tenderness and conviction.

The live performance does involve a few small lapses in orchestral ensemble and the sound balance for Juliet Stevenson’s spoken introduction makes her too distant – the volume button needed major adjustment once the music was underway. Overall, though, this is a haunting and very moving account. 

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Jessica Duchen