This Chandos release is essential for lovers of Bartók’s early and only opera, for the magnificent performance from the John Relyea. For those brought up on the Walter Berry/Christa Ludwig/István Kertész recording, Relyea is easily in the same league as Berry in terms of weary authority, sustained darkness and richness of tone, and Michelle DeYoung, with her rich middle register and thrilling high notes, matches him in searching out every facet of the drama.
They convey intensely the tension between archetype and character with an insight that increases with every hearing. Judith’s love-music after Door Six’s lake of tears is the most sensual and passionate I’ve heard on a recording, and Relyea’s rhapsody to Bluebeard’s three former wives – and now his fourth – is in a fierce, lyrical league of its own. Above all, the two singers take an opera that thrives more reliably as a concert-hall work or theatre of the mind into the realm of disturbing psychodrama.
Edward Gardner delivers the doom-laden castle music impeccably, with the orchestra stealing in beneath Pál Mácsai’s spoken fairy-tale introduction deeply unsettling. He is less good at steering the to-and-fro between the Duke and his latest Duchess before he starts handing over the keys to the seven locked Doors – he is scrupulous in observing the many tempo changes, but misses the music’s dragging weight and menace.
He is much more secure in the Concerto for Orchestra-like descriptive music for the first four Doors, in which the Bergen Philharmonic woodwinds and horn-players distinguish themselves. The approach to the Door Five music and the subsequent release of a flood of sound is the most-thrilling on disc, and those with top-notch audio-equipment will be very impressed, as will their neighbours. I don’t know if Bergen’s Grieghallen has an organ but it’s astonishingly powerful and fully lives up to the super-audio aspect of this SACD.
In general the sound is spacious, atmospheric and crystal-clear, easily doing justice to Bartók’s opulent scoring, and set against some pressurised moments earlier on from Gardner, he, his orchestra and his two superlative singers are on peak form as they fall into the abyss of this opera’s bleak conclusion.