BARTÓK Duke Bluebeard's Castle (Gardner)
Both John Relyea and Michelle DeYoung have recorded these roles before – both, as it happens, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. I missed the DVD from the Paris Opéra featuring Relyea (ArtHaus, 8/18) but now I’m impatient to see it, for his Bluebeard on this Chandos disc is a force of nature as well as a deeply sympathetic figure, and sonorously sung. In some interpretations of Bartók’s opera, Judith is the dramatic focus, but not here. And that’s not to knock DeYoung, whose voice has thickened slightly since her superb live recording with the Philharmonia (Signum, 7/14), but who still possesses a formidable blend of heft and tonal beauty. She gives us a marvellously multifaceted Judith: ardent in her promises to lift the castle’s gloom, persuasive in her sincerity as she begs for the doors to be opened, and seductive when she comes to the final door and needs difficult answers.
I only wish Edward Gardner’s conducting was as characterful as the singing. Often, the sound he elicits feels more rooted in the 19th century than the 20th. This works fine in the opera’s early sections, and brings an unexpected yet intriguing domestic naturalness to the couple’s interactions. But heard alongside Salonen’s Philharmonia account, or Kertész’s classic recording (Decca, 5/66, 4/95), Bartók’s fantastically lurid orchestral colour palette seems muted and the score’s sharp rhythms smoothed over. Listen, say, after the opening of the fourth door (track 11), where the Bergen Philharmonic’s genteel playing suggests a lovely manicured garden; there’s nothing at all macabre about it.
Gardner does come through in some big moments. I’m pleased that he doesn’t pull the tempo back as the fifth door is unlocked, for instance, so we sense Bluebeard’s surging pride as he reveals his vast domain. And the appropriately harsh glare of the brass in this scene provides stark contrast with the ghostly bleakness of the next and its lake of tears.
But with the final revelation, as Relyea rapturously projects Bluebeard’s terrible sorrow, Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic fail to provide a corresponding level of intensity. This is a pity, as Relyea’s Bluebeard is among the most moving – and human – on disc. I dare say he’s the equal of Miklós Székely, who studied the role with the composer (Hungaraton, 5/79). Relyea is so impressive, in fact, that I’d urge anyone who loves this work to hear this recording, despite its flaws. And there are bonuses: Pál Mácsai makes music of the prologue’s spoken verses, and Paul Griffiths’s booklet note is exceptionally perceptive.