Album review: Remarkable Bluebeard’s Castle from Mälkki and her Helsinki team

One of the most striking operatic endeavours of the twentieth century, Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára, 1911/1912/1917/1921) is a uniquely enthralling affair. Cast in one arch-shaped act and lasting roughly an hour, Bartók’s only opera bears an aura of a mystery play, motivated by strong symbolist and surrealistic undercurrents.

Based on a libretto by Béla Balász and featuring only two dramatis personae in the singing roles, Duke Bluebeard and his newly-wed wife, Judith, the orchestra is of key importance here, acting as a personification of the mystic castle and its Freudian subconsciousness.

Given that the libretto and the score indicate very little stage action, Bluebeard’s Castle lends itself remarkably well for concertante performances and audio recordings. Although the ingenious lighting effects and the visual impact of the appearance of Bluebeard’s three former wives (silent roles) are absent in its purely aural guise, the opera is a tremendous thing to hear on disc, thanks to Bartók’s incredible score.

Following their 2019 release of The Wooden Prince (1914-17) and The Miraculous Mandarin Suite (1918-19/1924/1927) double-bill SACD, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki embark on a journey through Bluebeard’s Castle on their second instalment of a projected three-volume Bartók series on BIS. Joined by bass Mika Kares and soprano Szilvia Vörös, the performance is a remarkable one, providing us with a fine addition to the Bluebeard discography.

Recorded at the Helsinki Music Centre in January 2020, the new album presents us with a detailed, well-conceived combination of live and studio takes of compelling intensity, marvellously served on disc by pin-point engineering and eloquent post-production of the BIS team.

The stage is set by a minstrel narrator, reflecting the ambivalence between the perceived stage drama and the one taking place within our psyche. Softly spoken in its original Hungarian by Géza Szilvay, the narration aptly sets the stage for the drama to unfold. The orchestra enters, quietly, with slowly moving string lines evoking the ancestral sonic imagery of the castle, as if emerging from the mists.

Over the dark-hued bed of strings, the first woodwind motives appear, signalling the arrival of Bluebeard and Judith. Their initial discussion leads to the action proper, the symbolist game of the seven doors, where each opening pushes the drama ever further into the very soul of the castle.

As the doors are opened, one by one, Bartók summons the orchestra to paint the pictures for the singers to contemplate, resulting in a series of the most imaginative (and evocative) musical tableaux. On the new disc, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic appear as fantastic story-tellers, transforming Bartók’s riveting score into gorgeous sonic entities.

Stirring string tremolos and startling ostinati introduce us to Bluebeard’s gruesome torture chamber, found behind the first door. Following the initial shock, the musical fabric is transformed into contemplative dialogue between Judith and Bluebeard, a scheme repeated with each opening.

Poignant brass and wind heralds lead us to the armoury, filled with blood-stained weapons. Behind the third door, glimmering orchestral textures call forth the images of jewels and pearls. As the harmonies grow more dissonant, Judith discovers the blood-marks upon the riches.

Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic in session at their Helsinki Music Centre home. © Sakari Viika

The introduction to the castle garden is adorned by quasi-impressionistic orchestral textures. However, the music quickly adopts a phantasmagoric tone, as our eyes are struck by the blood-dew upon the petals. The drama heightens, as the singers and the orchestra build up towards the central climax of the opera, Bluebeard’s Vast and Beautiful Kingdom.

A massive C major tutti burst, the glorious vistas over the lands of the kingdom are clad in fully-fledged orchestral majesty, supported by organ pedal points. Introduced by Bluebeard, the orchestra engages a solemn procession into the radiant, sunlit realm. However, on a closer look, clouds with blood-red linings appear on the sky. With five doors opened, the castle is now lit, but the sight is not flattering.

As Bartók’s musical arch begins to weigh down again, the score plunges deep into the dark undercurrents with the discovery of a pool of tears behind the sixth door. Within the orchestra, the dead-slow sonic ebb and and flow is contrasted by surfacing arpeggios, as the instrumental parts set the stage for the key dialogue between Judith and Bluebeard.

Forced by its own inner machinery, the opera lands on the seventh door. Concealed within are the three former wives of Bluebeard. Enthralled, Judith joins them as they escort her to their chamber. As the door closes, the music of the opening returns, bringing the ritualistic arch of the score to its shadowy end.

As Bluebeard and Judith, Kares and Vörös make up the perfect vocal pair. Ever on the same page, both musically and dramatically, their journey into the inevitable is rooted in the most gripping dramaturgy, yielding to an exquisite realisation of Bartók’s vocal writing. With exemplary sensitivity for the inherent expressive power of the voice parts, both soloists focus marvellously on the sublime detail, resulting in a performance of shared, captivating intimacy.

The vocal lines and the orchestral fabric are aptly balanced throughout, with the singers and instrumentalists beautifully aligned in unveiling all the fine detail of the drama. The overall sound is marvellously translucent, yielding to compelling intimacy and terrific intensity. In addition to the onstage music-making, the castle’s ominous sighs, indicated in the score, appear bone-chillingly spaced out from the auditorium, enhancing the drama splendidly.

As with their wonderful recent recording of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945) with Andreas Haefliger, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic convey the orchestral score with tremendous insight, shedding new light to myriad minutiae detail, often lost in a less focused performance. Combined with their fabulous trademark depth of sound, the orchestra shines on the new disc.

With three extraordinary items in their joint discography, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic have entered the realm of recordings with style over the past two years. One looks forward to their future forays with joyful excitement.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Susanna Mälkki, conductor

Mika Kares, bass (Bluebeard)

Szilvia Vörös, soprano (Judith)

Géza Szilvay, narrator

Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11 (1911/1912/1917/1921) – Opera in one act

Recorded at the Helsinki Music Centre, January 2020

BIS-2388 (2021), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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