BARTÓK: Bluebeard's Castle
Lászlo Polgár (Bluebeard); Idikó Komlósi (Judith); Budapest Festival Orch/Iván Fischer, cond.
PHILIP SACD 470 633 TT: 55:27 (5 channel)

MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 in G
Laura Claycomb, soprano; San Francisco Symphony Orch/Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.
SAN FRANCISCO SO 821936-0004 TT: 62:28 (5 channel)

Bartók's wrote his only opera, the one-act Duke Bluebeard's Castle in 1911, but it didn't receive its premiere until May 24, 1918 in a concert shared with the composer's The Wooden Prince. Bluebeard's plot is about the ill-fated Judith who, in spite of warnings, marries Duke Bluebeard and goes with him to his ominous castle where she finds seven locked doors. Judith insists on unlocking each one, finding behind them a torture chamber, an armoury, a treasury, a garden, Bluebeard's empire, a lake of tears and, behind the seventh door, Bluebeard's three previous wives, not dead, but immortal. Judith then joins the other wives behind the seventh door. Bluebeard's Castle had undergone a number of revisions before the premiere and contains some of the composer's most imaginative music. There have been many superb recordings, particularly Ferenc Fricsay's slightly-cut stereo version from 1958, Istvan Kertész' 1965 Decca recording, and, most recently, Bernard Haitink's with the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI. Audio buffs always have treasured this score for its grand opening of the Fifth Door with its smashing high "C" for the soprano accompanied by heavy brass, percussion and organ. This new Philips recording is magnificent in every way. Conductor Ivàn Fischer reads the brief Prologue (in Hungarian, of course), and both singers are outstanding. The Bartók archives in Budapest have discovered some errors in the printed score all of which have been corrected in this recording, and the Budapest State Opera loaned the very rare keyboard xylophone which is heard to great effect in the torture chamber sequence. Hein Dekker was recording producer. He and his staff did a magnificent job in creating a totally natural, rich concert hall perspective with a perfect balance between singers and orchestra. A complete text with English translation is included. Highly recommended!

Michael Tilson Thomas' San Francisco Mahler symphony cycle continues with this issue of Symphony No. 4 recorded live during performances in September 2003. Previous issues in the series have been widely acclaimed. Symphony No. 6 won a Grammy last year for Best Orchestral Performance, this year Symphony No. 3 won a Grammy as Best Classical Album. This new recording of Symphony No. 4 is not likely to win any awards except, possibly, for sonic quality. MTT's reading is too leisurely, clocking in at well over 62 minutes, the longest recording I've ever encountered. Willem Mengelberg's 1939 live Concertgebouw performance is 57:50, Van Beinum's 1952 Decca recording is 52:26, and Bernard Haitink's live 1982 recording with the same orchestra is 57:52. Thomas' carefully phrased slow tempi are mannered to the extreme. Laura Claycomb is a fine soloist in the finale, but doubtless there will be many more multi-channel versions of this popular symphony that will be superior to this. About a year ago Radio Nederland at an NPR conference distributed a demonstration-sample multi-channel SACD of a live Haitink performance (56:05) of this symphony from a concert October 11, 2002. This boasted superb natural sound with extraordinary presence—perhaps this eventually be issued commercially.

R.E.B. (April 2004)