Budapest Festival Orchestra
Press reviews January 13, 2012

Iván Fischer: Bartók Bluebeard’s Castle on Channel

Bartók Bluebeard’s Castle • Iván Fischer, conductor; Ildikó Komlósi (Judit); László Polgár (Bluebeard); Budapest Festival Orchestra • Channel CCS SA 90311 (SACD: 55:27 Text and Translation)

This recording was made in 2002 and issued by Philips in Europe; this may be its first appearance in the United States. If the Channel Classics CD is technically a reissue, it is by no means marked-down goods; this is as fine a performance as I have heard of Bartók’s marvelous early opera, recorded in stupendous recorded sound, even on the CD layer.

I have kept on my shelves only three of the many recordings I have reviewed, each of which has some outstanding virtues not always shared by the others. Ferenc Fricsay’s 1958 stereo recording, though slightly cut and sung in German, has a rightness about it, an absolute certainly that this is what Bartók was driving at, that typified Fricsay performances of a composer with whom he had studied and worked. He and his Bluebeard, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, adopt a cool, calm approach to the quiet moments of the score, which paradoxically raises the mystery and tension thereof. István Kertész brings a lush brilliance to the score, seconded by his Decca engineers and supported by a pair of solid, masterly vocalists, Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry. Peter Eötvös has put it all together, in a performance that keeps the drama rolling, never letting down for the youthful score’s occasional weak moments. One notes that— pace Eötvös’s Transylvanian birth—the conductors are all Hungarian. Valery Gergiev led a superb performance, gorgeously recorded on an LSO Live SACD ( Fanfare 33:3), which lacked only a Hungarian flavor.

The recording on hand encompasses most of those virtues, even exceeding some. Iván Fischer —another Hungarian— hews close to Fricsay’s way with the score; he and his superb orchestra are overwhelming at the climaxes, aided by the outstanding sonics from Budapest’s Italian Institute. The brass-led outbursts at the opening of the fifth door (track 7) will make your hair stand on end. László Polgár has an ideal voice for Bluebeard—similar to Samuel Ramey in his prime—producing solid, forward tones all the way down to pp . He adopts Fischer-Dieskau’s cool approach to the role, in a marvelous portrayal, becoming my favorite Bluebeard. In Fanfare 30:3, Barry Brenesal called the Philips disc “a decidedly lesser affair thanks to Ildikó Komlósi’s unsteady Judit.” I don’t mind her heavy vibrato and mezzo quality, finding them appropriate for the role, and she hits door five’s unprepared high C solidly (conductor Fischer must also approve, as she sang Judit for him with the Concertgebouw Orchestra a few years earlier). Fischer himself speaks the Prologue, in Magyar.

I am a music lover rather than an opera lover. What’s the difference? Tell a friend that you have a spare ticket to the opera and ask if he/she would like to accompany you: The music lover responds “What’s playing?” The opera lover “Who’s singing?” In this case, I must defend the other side. The names of the singers appear only on the back page, in blue against a dark background, in type so tiny that I had to resort to a magnifying glass: Ildikó Komlósi. Laszló Polgár. There is nothing about them in the booklet: no names, no words, no pictures. The Hungarian/English libretto is printed clearly, black on white.

Oh, yes: Have I mentioned the recorded sound? The voices are naturally integrated into the orchestra, always intelligible and never lost to even the great climaxes. In comparison, Decca’s excellent CD now sounds unnatural, suspending the singers in midair, in front of the orchestra. I’ve often complained about surround-sound SACDs of string quartets or Haydn sonatas, which receive no benefit from the technology and sometimes even suffer from it. Well, this is what I’ve been missing. The SACD layer may not add to the power of that great brass climax, but it does peer into the orchestra, revealing subtle details not heard on the CD level, and the DSD 5.0 is intoxicating; one can feel the breeze gusting though each opened door, smell the blood on the walls. Wow! I guess I’ll have to retain still another Bluebeard’s Castle . So should you.

Fanfare, James H. North