Posts Tagged ‘Anne Sofie von Otter’

Not So Polish-ed

In Classical Music, Review on March 6, 2016 at 2:46 pm

Review – Tchaikovsky, Zemlinsky & Szymanowski (Royal Festival Hall, Saturday 5 March 2016)

Symphony No. 3 “Polish” (Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky)
Six Maeterlinck Lieder (Alexander von Zemlinsky)
Stabat Mater (Karol Szymanowski)

Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano)
Elzbieta Szmytka (Soprano)
Andrzej Dobber (Bass)

London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic

Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

A concert in part to celebrate the 1050th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland was somewhat of a schizophrenic affair.

There is a quasi-correct connection between Tchaikovsky’s mis-named “Polish” Symphony No. 3 and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater commissioned by the rather racy Princesse de Polignac. However I couldn’t find a direct connection with Zemlinsky except the fact that Louise Zemlinsky’s mother died in a concentration camp in Poland. But I think that is a coincidental connection rather than a deliberate one.

Apart from historical schizophrenia, it was also a schizophrenic event in terms of the overall musical performance. As I’ve commented previously, Jurowski can coax magnificent playing from his orchestra but he often shows little sympathy for singers that made for an almost missed opportunity with regards to Zemlinsky’s Maeterlinck Lieder.

We simply don’t hear Anne Sofie von Otter in London often enough and last time it was in the ill-thought out The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. She is an incredible and intelligent performer and she brought the whole of her musical experience and insight into the performance of these six songs. Poor Zemlinsky, he lost out to Mahler in more ways that one both as conductor, composer and lover but these songs are under-rated. Ms von Otter brought each song to life through a clear love and understanding of the texts. Never has Und ich sah den Tod, der ewartetihn auch (and I saw Death waiting for him as well) been so perfectly placed word for word and the opening of the fifth song, Und kerht er einst heim sounded both so wistful and yet full of forlorn hope. And again she drove the text forward to the final tragic words.

Yet while Ms von Otter shared a wealth of experience and a surge of emotion to each song with the audience, Jurowski’s support was almost perfunctory and at times, overwhelmed the singer. Zemlinsky’s orchestration creates a very particular sound world and we only caught occasional glimpses of it.

Anyone fortunate enough to see Król Roger at Covent Garden will recognize the heady, almost opiate-laden palette that Szymanowski uses and his Stabat Mater is not exception. What stood out most from this performance was the quality of the choral singing – impressive, clear and impassioned. The trio of soloists was a mixed bag. At first, I thought that Jurowski might have asked the singers to dispense with vibrato because of the almost Choirboy-ish timbre and delivery of soprano Elzbieta Szmytka. However this was dispelled by Ms von Otter own impassioned delivery of the Polish text. Personally and thinking back to Georgia Jarman, I would have preferred a soprano with more depth and richness for this vocal line. The third soloist. Andrzej Dobber had a resonant if slightly indistinct bass and seemed most subsumed by Jurowski’s conducting.

The concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony – erroneously labeled the “Polish” symphony. It always feels like the ‘middle child’ of the composer’s six symphonies (seven if you include Manfred). It follows the creative freshness of the firs two symphonies, and while it teases at the last three in the set, this five movement work always feels more academic experiment than symphony. Personally, anyway.

It was well-performed, with Jurowski revealing much of the inner detail, however it didn’t seem to hang together coherently. But ultimately this has more to do with the symphony itself that the excellent playing of the London Philharmonic and in particularly some of the individual players and in particular the first bassoonist.

I’m not sure that the evening warranted a standing ovation from some parts of the Festival Hall (I think there was some partisanship going on) and I continue to hope that Jurowski will find a more sympathetic approach when he next performs with any singers.


Perfection’s Veneer

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 15, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Review – The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Royal Opera House, Thursday 12 March 2015)

Leocadia Begbick – Anne Sofie von Otter
Fatty – Peter Hoare
Trinity Moses – Willard W. White
Jenny – Christine Rice
Jimmy McIntyre – Kurt Streit
Jack O’Brien – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Bank-Account Bill – Darren Jeffrey
Alaska Wolf Joe – Neal Davies
Toby Higgins – Hubert Francis
Six Girls – Anna Burford, Lauren Fagan, Anush Hovhannisyan, Stephanie Marshall, Meeta Raval & Harriet Williams
Voice – Paterson Joseph

Director – John Fulljames
Set Designs – Es Devlin
Costume Designs – Christina Cunningham
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet
Video Designs – Finn Ross

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera

Mark Wigglesworth (Conductor)

I ate and was never full, I drank and was always still thirsty. Somebody give me a glass of water!”

Jimmy McIntyre’s last words just before his execution could also be a fitting epitaph for the Royal Opera House’s first ever production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

It was a smart and – on the whole – well-performed and executed production. But there was a gloss to it that meant that ultimately it failed to convince.

In the programme, Kasper Holten identified the contradictions of this work – a full-blown opera with ‘anti-opera’ elements, but ultimately what we got was just opera. There was no sense of the radicalism – musically or otherwise – that made Brecht and Weill’s collaboration so controversial when it was first performed.

It was – in it’s search for perfection – all too polite. There was no sense of corruption and decadence – of seediness – required by Brecht and Weill’s words and music to make this production of Mahagonny really work.

In the pit Mark Wigglesworth – soon to be Music Director at ENO – conducted without any sense of verve interpretation or attention to the score. And he didn’t draw from the orchestra a palette of sound that was anything but operatic. That lack of colour so required for Weill’s music ultimately meant that for the most part the orchestra sounded bland. Ironically it seemed that the only louche-ness in the pit came from the lazy attention to rhythm that again undermined the composer’s music.

The singing – while on the whole strong – also came a cropper. Christine Rice – for example – sounded glorious but glorious wasn’t what was needed. She didn’t capture the emotional ennui of Jenny, nor her coldness. It’s rare to hear Anne Sofie von Otter on stage at Covent Garden, and this was a wasted opportunity. She is a singer I admire, not only for her Baroque performances, but a repertoire that also includes chansons as well as a notable album with Elvis Costello. But here, she was lost and seemed more caricature that characterful. And this was true of Peter Hoare, Willard White, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Darren Jeffrey and Neal Davies. In any opera they would have been superb, but here vocally they were unconvincing and dramatically, ciphers.

And personally, Kurt Streit was simply miscast as Jimmy. He lacked both the flexibility and vocal amplitude that the music required, often sounding uncomfortably strained and like the others dramatically unconvincing. In the final scene – when John Fulljames seemed to finally find a dramatic rhythm – it was too late for Streit to redeem the production despite being offered so overtly to the audience as the ultimate Redeemer.

However plaudits must go to the Royal Opera Chorus that was impressive especially in the Second and Third Acts.

The production, like the performances, lacked punch although Es Devlin ensured that visually it was smart. She made clever use of shipping containers and projections and the set for the second act was very impressive. In some ways, Fulljames’ grandiose – and again overly operatic – approach to the story was ultimately the production. Feeling for the most part overblown, as if trying too hard to fit the stage, the director distracted from the simplicity of the story itself. And at times I did wonder why Mahagonny – and not Orfeo – was scheduled for The Roundhouse or a similar venue. I thought the attempt to tie Brecht’s tornado to global warming was clumsy at best, and ultimately never felt that Fulljames’ attempt to “modernise’ the author’s critique of capitalism was convincing.

As I have already mentioned, the “Jesus” moment at the end was effective but mainly because it stood in stark relief to the general weakness of the production overall and wasn’t enough to rescue the evening.

The Rise and fall of the City of Mahagonny is a story of the power, corruption, desire and ultimately the failure of immorality. It’s in the words. It’s in the music. It should permeate and soak into both the production and the audience should leave at the end of the evening feeling ever so slightly sullied.

Sadly Covent Garden’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny only felt ike a night at the opera. Nothing more.

Aria for … Saturday – Nacht und Träume

In Aria For ..., Classical Music on June 8, 2013 at 5:52 pm

This piece I have not heard for a very long time. So long in fact that I had forgotten it as on my iPod.

But here wending my way home by train it seems to fit my mood.

This is not Schubert’s original lied by the orchestrated version by Max Reger, a lieder composer himself. Indeed composers as diverse as Britten, Brahms and even Webern orchestrated some of Franz’s songs as well. And this disc is well worth a listen.

It’s a gem of a song and Reger’s orchestration in no way undermines the beauty of Schubert’s original. In fact the subtlety of the orchestral – almost earthy – writing adds to the song’s beauty.

In some ways it is a song where nothing actually happens. The sustained vocal line drifts – like the subject matter – above the murmuring accompaniment.

But Schubert knew what he was doing. It is this very simplicity that makes this song so very effective. No note is wasted or extraneous to the mood he creates.

And here, Anne Sofie von Otter, with Abbado at the helm spins out the vocal line with great poise and beauty.

As I said, a real gem.

A Slice Of Quattro (Mezzo) Soprani

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Mozart, Opera, Review on October 29, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Sogno Barocco – Anne-Sofie von Otter (Sandrine Piau, Capella Mediterranea, Leonardo Garcia Alarcon)
Prima Donna – Karina Gauvin (Arion Baroque Orchestra, Alexander Wiemann)
Dramma – Simone Kermes (La Magnifica Comunità, Isabella Longo)
Amoretti – Christiane Karg (Arcangelo & Jonathan Cohen)

It seems that new CDs by leading singers are like buses. You wait ages and then a slew of them arrive at the same time. In the last few weeks I have bought no less than seven new recital discs. As well as those listed above I also have excellent recital discs by Joyce DiDonato and Soile Isokoski as well as Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s more lacklustre recital of Eighteenth Century arias. The latter bordering, sadly, on the disappointing.

While I will return to Mesdames DiDonato and Isokoski at a later date, the four recital CDs listed above have – to varying degrees – given me many hours of pleasure from repeated listening.

Heading the list – and rather unexpectedly I have to admit – is Swedish mezzo Anne-Sofie von Otter’s Sogno Barocco. I do not say unexpectedly from any sense that the recital isn’t of the very highest standard but rather this isn’t necessarily music that I more normally delve into.

But I am glad I did. I have always greatly admired Ms von Otter. Her luxuriant and characterful mezzo is combined with an intelligent yet impassioned approach to performance. As well as having many of her performances on CD, I have seen her in recital as well as in a broad range of operatic roles including as Brangäne in the Sellars/Viola Tristan und Isolde.

Following her magnificent disc of French arias, Ombre De Mon Amour with Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, Ms von Otter steps back further in time to the earliest Baroque opera composers and has created a recital interestingly coincidentally based on music for queens, either fictional or real. Accompanied by the excellent Capella Mediterranea under Leonardo Garcia Alarcon the listener is further spoiled – and there is no other word to use – by the appearance of Sandrine Piau in three tracks. As well as Monteverdi, Ms von Otter has built a recital that includes Rossi, Cavalli and a rather boisterous number by Provenzale.

The mood and standard is set immediately by Monteverdi’s Si dolce è ‘l tormento. The strophic structure of this song with it varied instrumental interludes is beguiling in its simplicity.

But the standout highlights of the recital are undoubtedly Pur to miro from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and her impassioned soliloquy Di misera regina from Il ritorno d’Ulisse. In the first and famous duet, Mesdames Otter and Piau wrap their vocal lines around one another with a sensuality that I’ve not heard matched in other performances, and after a rhythmically alert middle section what can only be described as an almost sexual tension is heightened in the melting beautiful da capo. And in the second, Ms von Otter ensures that each and every word is carefully weighed for its emotional content and woven into a grieving whole.

But while the selections from Monteverdi define the album, this recital disc includes numerous other gems that demand repeated listening. For example Cavalli’s Dolcissimi baci (La Calisto) and Doriclea lamento (Doriclea) or at the other end of the unusual scale, Rossi’s Lamento de la Regina di Suezia with contralto Susanna Sundberg. Here von Otter runs the gamut of a whole range of emotions including a most impressive ‘battaglia’ section. And on a more boisterous note there is Provenzale’s Squaciato appena havea.

Throughout von Otter is brilliantly accompanied by the players of Capella Mediterranea led by Leonardo Garcia Alarcon, and they provide a scattering of instrumental pieces throughout the recital alternating vigour with delicacy. Even if – like me – you are not normally an early Baroque enthusiast this is definitely a disc worth listening to.

Next was Karina Gauvin’s Prima Donna with the Arion Baroque Orchestra directed by Alexander Wiemann. All the arias on the disc were written for Anna Maria Strada del Pò and while the bulk of the arias are by Handel there are isolated arias by Vinci and Vivaldi. However it is with Handel that del Pò is mainly associated and for her he wrote key roles including Angelica in Orlando, Adelaida in Lotario and the title role in Partenope. Indeed it seems that Handel was responsible for her career as Charles Burney wrote she was “a singer formed by himself (Handel), and modelled on his own melodies. She came hither a coarse and awkward singer with improve talents, and he at last polished her into reputation and favour”. Sadly Burney cannot resist a rite critical stance on her appearance, writing “she had so little of the Venus in her appearance, that she was usually called the Pig”. Not something critics today would dare write methinks.

I tried very hard to love this recital disc as much as I have loved previous recordings by Ms Gauvin as well as her live performances. But after repeated listening – and I am sure I will return to it again and again – all I can admit to is admiring Ms Gauvin’s technical proficiency combined with her bright and sonorous soprano. But bar a few fleeting moments when she almost gets under the skin of the music, these are ‘glossy’ performances.

There’s little ‘bite’ or colour and very little interpretation. But she can throw off the coloratura as witnessed by a rather jaunty Scherza in mar from Lotario and Angelica’s No, non potra dirmi ingrata that opens the recital.

The moments where there are glimpses of what could have been are in the three numbers from Alcina – Ah! Ruggiero, crudel … Ombre pallide, Si, non quella and – what must be one of my favourite of all Handel’s arias – Ah! Mio cor. Here the emotional temperature gets above lukewarm but never to boiling point.

I think it part it is due to the colourless – almost polite and reserved – playing of the Arion Baroque Orchestra and direction of Wiemann. Even the orchestral excerpts – including the rather odd decision to throw in a rather scratchy Grave from Handel’s Concerto Grosso in c minor for his Opus 6 collection – are lacklustre.

So in the end a disappointing disc that does very little to demonstrate Ms Gauvin’s very obvious musicianship and vocal brilliance.

Simone Kermes’ album Dramma delves into the world of the castrato with a disc of music of composers Giuseppe de Majo, Porpora, Pergolesi and Leo together with a single yet highly memorable Handel aria with great verve delivered in spades. And many of the arias world-premiere recordings.

Ms Kermes has carved out a place for herself as a coloratura soprano of some standing and this disc reinforces this position with authority. Not only is she in magnificent form but she digs deep to find the emotional dimension in each aria.

I don’t know if it’s my disc but the opening aria, de Majo’s Per trionfar pugnando has a scratchy opening almost as if listening to an old 78 but it doesn’t distract from the brilliance of the orchestral playing – and in particular the trumpets – or Ms Kermes’ vocal security and polished tone.

Indeed Ms Kermes throws out the challenging coloratura of many of the arias with both enviable ease and accuracy. For example in Empi, se mai disciplogo, Leo’s Son qual nave in ria procella with its pinpoint delivery or Pergolesi’s Sul mio cor.

But one of the most beautiful arias on this disc is Alto Giove from Porpora’s Polifemo and coming as the second track underlines the breadth of Ms Kermes talent. The momentum – almost nervous pulse – of the accompaniment belies the beautiful vocal line that Ms Kermes spins above it. Her opening phrase – the simple dynamic control she exerts – is a lesson in musicianship and following the short middle section it’s return is stunning. This is the most wonderful preghiera.

In a similar vein is Porpora’s lilting Le limpid’onde from Ifiginie in Aulide with its luminous wind writing. Charming.

Hasse is represented by two arias and the first, Consola il genitore, has Ms Kermes accompanied only by harpsichord. The sheer simplicity of this aria is in stark contrast after the seven preceding arias yet the exposed vocal line is beautifully delivered. In the scheme of Hasse’s L’Olimpiade from which this is taken, it must have been an incredible moment.

Handel is represented by Lascia ch’io pianga. A difficult aria to carry off normally here it is nothing short of a heart-stopping event in this recital. The hushed da capo, almost totally unadorned in any way, is reason enough to buy this disc.

The orchestral playing under Isabella Longo as I have already said, is of the highest standard. Listen to the bold contrapuntal opening of Vedrà turbato il mare for example or the delicacy of Tace l’augello with its solo string writing complimenting Ms Kermes superbly. But perhaps the greatest evidence of the evident joy of La Magnifica Comunitá is Porpora’s Se dopo ria procella with its nothing less than raunchy but accurate horn playing.

Christiane Karg is new to me but Amoretti – with arias by Mozart, Gluck and Grétry – is a gem.

Ms Karg has a beautifully clear and bell-like soprano combined with very sure technique. The opening aria from La Finta Giardinera – and the title of the album – is beautifully presented and sets the standard for the remaining arias by Mozart as well as the whole disc.

Ferma aspetta … Infelici affetti miei from Ascanio in Alba belies how young Mozart was when he wrote it and Ms Karg invests it with suitable dramatic power. And this emotional investment comes to the fore in the scena from Lucio Silla, Fra i pensier.

Mitridate’s Lunga da te is taken at a daringly measured pace but has both a superb horn obbligato and wonderful elegant legato phrasing from Ms Karg.

And if anyone is in doubt of Ms Karg’s technique then Biancheggia from Il Sogno di Scipione will dispel any concerns as she veritably flings out the divisions with incredible ease.

The selections from Gluck include the rarely performed Soumis au silence from Orphée et Euridice and Sacre Piante from Il Parnasso Confuso but it is the Adieu from Iphigénie en Aulide which stands out. Crystal clear diction and a real sympathy for the rhythmic structure of the vocal line, Ms Karg is a natural Gluckist.

But the real finds of this recital are the arias by André Ernest Modeste Grétry. In my teenage years, rummaging through a second-hand record shop I came across a recording of Grétry’s – I’m pretty sure it was his Richard, Cœur de Lion. At the time I remember trying anything from the Eighteenth century ‘rather than’ Mozart but have to admit that having got it home I was more than a little disappointed.

Having revisited Grétry more than once since it is no small shame that he is not performed more often, especially based in the selections made here. Comme in éclair from La fausse Magpie written in 1775 is an exercise in Galanterie and clearly influenced not only by his time in Italy but by a plethora of Italian contemporaries in its composition. Again the coloratura here holds no fears for Ms Karg and her vocal technique shines through.

Il va venir! … Pardonne o mon Juge from Silvain was a comédie written five years earlier and again clearly owes much to Italian opera. Following a well-crafted accompanied section the subsequent aria with its oboe interjections is almost Mozartian – early Mozart.

The third aria, Au bien supreme from the comédie Lucille was written in 1769 owes something to Gluck in its woodwind colouring.

Perhaps it’s about time that the spotlight was shine more fully on Monsieur Grétry. Any offers?

And throughout Ms Karg is confidently supported by Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen. As in their disc with Iestyn Davies Cohen and the players demonstrate their instinctive talent and musicianship.

Another slice anyone?

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.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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