New Listen #1 – Bluebeard’s Castle (Béla Bartók)

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 19, 2012 at 11:23 pm

Bluebeard (Kékszakállú) – John Tomlinson
Judith (Judit) – Anne Sofie von Otter
Narrator – Sandor Elès

Conductor – Bernard Haitink
Berlin Philharmonic

As I mentioned in my last post of 2011, I intend to listen to as much new music as I can in 2012. Of course there will always be new singers that I will always look out for but one area I plan to explore is chamber music for example. I have to admit that – with the exception of a few pieces – this is a genre that I rarely listen to and know very little about. Apart from that I hope that I will stumble on individual works and composers I haven’t listened to before or – as is the case with this first blog of the new year –that I should have listened to by now, but for whatever reason, have neglected or avoided to do.

There is something uniquely thrilling about listening to a piece of music for the first time. Over and above the obvious thrill of ‘the new’ there are two things that make it personally exciting for me. The first is giving myself the time – and the luxury – to focus on one thing with no other distraction. All too often music is listened to in the background because of its familiarity or – in my case travelling as much as I do – en route to somewhere. And secondly it can lead to the discovery beyond that single work of other pieces by that composer. And of course there is the added frisson of either hearing new artists for the first time or, as is the case here, of hearing two of my favourite artists in unfamiliar repertory.

So the first ‘new piece’ of the New Year is Béla Bartók’s only opera, the one act Bluebeard’s Castle.

So much for chamber music. Next time I promise.

I have to admit that the impetus for choosing this piece was the result of a recent edition of Gramophone magazine and having scanned my shelves realising that I have two recordings of this opera – John Tomlinson and Anne Sofie von Otter conducted by Bernard Haitink and the Berlin Philharmonic Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. Following Gramophone’s recommendation, I selected the former. I can’t remember why I bought either recording but can only surmise that at some point in the past I decided – as I have now – to listen to the work. Clearly on that occasion it didn’t happen.

My enduring memory of Bartók is ploughing through his six volume piano cycle, Mikrokosmos. At the time when all I was only interested in was Mozart and Beethoven’s piano sonatas it seemed a never-ending torture inflicted on me by my piano teacher to work my way through each and every piece. At the time I failed to appreciate either the inventive originality of the music itself or it’s raison d’être – to improve technical proficiency. And perhaps that is why I have never really engaged in his music since. A subconscious decision that I am determined to rectify this year.

As the intention is to listen to music that I haven’t heard before I intend to take a different approach with these blogs. As these will be first impressions I intend to take a step back and take a more general overview. Comparison – where possible and appropriate – will be made but these entries will be more about initial and hopefully, lasting impact the music has.

With Bartók starting with his one and only opera seemed like a logical place to begin. Immediately Bartók confounds expectation. The opera doesn’t open in the traditional sense with an overture. Far from it, before the curtain has risen – according to the stage directions – we are presented with a narrator. This creates an immediate sense of isolation almost for the audience as they are invited to watch no so much an opera – or indeed a play – but to participate as voyeurs on the couple. Structurally the opera is in a single act split into seven tableaux, one for each door, plus the opening scene setting when Bluebeard returns to the castle with his new bride.

Further more, on a personal level the sense of dissimilarity from the norm is heightened by the language of the opera itself. Hungarian is not – in any way – a language I am familiar with and therefore unlike when listening to vocal music in German, Italian, French and even, for those ecclesiastical moments, Latin, where there is the opportunity to anchor either words, phrases or whole libretti to the music, here I was somewhat cast adrift. However, cast adrift in a good way. As with the Czechoslovakian of Rusalka, the Hungarian language is phonetically rich and for wont of a better description, has a musicality all of its own as evidenced by the opening narration.

When the orchestra does finally intrude on the narrator again I was struck by a sound world that was both unusual yet familiar. I don’t know enough Bartók (yet) but from the start it took me back to Mikrokosmos – the easily identifiable rhythmic pulse of Bartók’s music and the percussive angularity of his motif-based melody.

From the very opening orchestral bars, Bartók creates a sense of dread and foreboding with the desolate scoring of woodwind and strings. And each of the scenes is a masterpiece of orchestration in terms of colour and variety.

Vocally, there are no arias or set pieces for either singer. Rather Bartók’s musical style lends itself to expressive arioso that rests above the orchestra, sometimes sharing the melodic material but more often sitting in juxtaposition. Both von Otter and Tomlinson are perfectly cast. The latter not only has a deep, rich tone as befits the character but the ability to shade his voice according to the narrative. And similarly von Otter inhabits the character of Judit. It’s simply chilling how she can modulate her voice to depict the excited and demanding bride to one of desolation as she realises the fate she must accept. And as I followed the text throughout and to my untrained Hungarian ear, their diction was incredible.

The first door reveals a torture chamber and it was – to my ear – reminiscent of some Richard Strauss and in particular Salome. Plangent winds and falling motifs seem to symbolise Judit throughout the opera. Bartók’s interpretation of fanfares and martial music reveal the armoury behind the second door. The gentle, almost resigned music as Bluebeard relents and gives his new bride all the keys to the doors – particular the use of the harp – is in sharp contrast to Judit’s more insistent music as she insists on her love for him.

As Judit enters the treasury behind the third door, Bartók scores his most lyrical music yet, until of course she realises that even the gems are covered in blood but Bartók moves quickly on to the castle’s secret garden with its trilling flutes and richer string writing. The vocal writing remains inherently lyrical, and now there is almost a sense of Zemlinsky, however listen carefully for the dissonances in the winds that hark back – in my mind – to the blood-covered jewels earlier and Judit’s increasing sense of disquiet.

The fifth door is flung open to reveal Bluebeard’s kingdom and here – for the first time – Bartók unleashes the full orchestra. Brass chords and magnificent broad, sweeping phrases in Bluebeard’s vocal line immediately create a sense of great space. The immediate juxtaposition with Judit’s quiet, unaccompanied response is chilling. Suddenly the sense of her isolation from the real world and a sense of dread of her fate become clearer. Judit is but another possession.

The dialogue between husband and wife becomes increasingly animated and agitated as Judit demands that he reveals what lies behind the final two doors. Solo timpani signal Bluebeard’s decision to open the sixth door. Glissandi strings signify the awaiting terror as she opens the door to reveal a lake of Bluebeard’s tears.

Bartók’s manipulation of the orchestra is masterful. From a sense of great agitatio everything suddenly stops. Orchestral flourishes contrast with winding phrases in the flutes and oboes creating an aural picture of inertia – or waters deep and forbidding ripples. Even the vocal lines have a musical ennui to them.

Skilfully Bartók builds the music to its most sensual – luscious strong writing and soft brass pedals – as Judit asks if Bluebeard loves her – but the underlying dissonances remain. His use of silences is telling in this section as she begins to question him about his previous wives as the falling motive below her vocal line becomes more insistent.

As Judit moves closer to her fate, her vocal line every more agitated, Bartók builds the orchestra below her to a thrilling climax before it recedes back to just strings and beating drum as he finally gives her the seventh and final key.

And of course, as the audience would know, behind the seventh door are Bluebeard’s former wives. The cor anglais sets the scene with its repeated falling motif as Bluebeard reveals the truth. The music is – considering the drama – interestingly static with Bartók writing long, arching phrases contrasted with – and a nice touch – the sense of a pulse or heart-beat in the brass.

Bluebeard’s description of his wives is magical in its delicate orchestration and here tellingly, for the first time, Bartók elides the two vocal lines as Judit makes comment on her predecessors and he reveals and executes Judit’s inevitable fate. Her pleading vocal lines are in sharp contrast to his broad phrases.

And of course Bartók builds to the final orchestral denouement before the orchestra finally fades as darkness takes over the stage and we return to the dark and bleak sound world of the beginning – unison strings, desolate winds that gradually dissipate with a final beat from the timpani.

Listening to this opera has been incredibly enjoyable and I have returned to it more than once as I have written this blog. Bartók is a master craftsman when it comes to its orchestration and, under Haitink’s baton, clearly a master dramatist too. It’s a shame that he never wrote any more stage works.

Not only do I look forward to exploring my other recording of this opera, but also his orchestral and chamber music this year. And seeing a production of this work is now a priority.

I might even be persuaded to return to Mikrokosmos.

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