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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Marin Alsop has made a series of impressive recordings for Naxos, of which this is one of the finest yet, with gloriously rich sound, very well focused. The big climax when Judith opens the door on to Bluebeard’s vast kingdom is thrilling, a wonderfully weighty focus for the whole sequence of doors, a sequence which Alsop sustains masterfully. Gustáv Beláček has a Slavonic-sounding bass, firmly controlled, very apt for the role and well matched by the Judith of Andrea Meláth, an imaginative choice of soloist. A fine bargain alternative [to the EMI version].

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, March 2008

The Bournemouth SO is all one could ask for in the way of color, accent, and timbre in such a work. I find Marin Alsop generally convincing in an overtly theatrical way… © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

James Leonard, February 2008

This Naxos disc may or may not contain the greatest recording of Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle" ever made, but while it's playing, you'll wholeheartedly believe that it is. Naturally, in a one-act opera featuring only two singers, the quality of the soloists is critical, and in bass Gustáv Belácek and soprano Andrea Meláth, this recording has two wonderfully lyrical singers who really grasp the psychological depths of Bluebeard and his wife Judith. But more important for the overall success of the performance is the quality of the conductor and orchestra, and in Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth, this recording has a conductor and orchestra at the very peak of their form. Alsop's leadership is intensely dramatic, but never bombastic, and the Bournemouth plays as if the fate of humanity hangs on the passion of the performance. Recorded in all-enveloping sound at The Concert Hall in Poole in May 2007, the digital sound here rivals the best of the so-called major labels. Though many listeners will retain their attachment to the Kertész, Solti, or even the Boulez recordings, those who love Bartók's operatic masterpiece will welcome this recording with open arms.

Rob Cowan
Gramophone, February 2008

Alsop finds a compelling way to open doors into Bartok's grisly world

Duke Bluebeard's Castle is in many ways the ideal opera for CD; stage action is less of the essence than a highly descriptive orchestral score, and the "plot" provides as much mental as visual stimulation. There are plenty of good Bluebeards on disc, and this new Naxos production is a welcome addition to the ranks. Imaginative moments are in generous supply. For example, Judith's blasé, low-key response to Bluebeard's pride as he throws open the Castle's fifth door, her implied rolling eyes at his "spacious country", a passage thrillingly prepared by Marin Alsop and the orchestra. There's the feverish orchestral build-up approaching the sixth door, the lake of tears, and at 1'21" into tr 10 the moment when Judith asks Bluebeard to tell her who he had loved before her - less "asks" in this context than dares to enquire in the thrall of a terrible fear. Andrea Meláth sounds stunned, even terror-stricken, and Alsop draws a sickly-grey backdrop from her Bournemouth players. Best of all is the faltering path to the seventh door: "I have guessed your secret," cries Judith, and Alsop charts the tortuous course of this terrible moment to perfection. In context it proves the drama's high-point, more overwhelming in fact than the internment which isn't quite as effective as on some rivals.

Less impressive is Meláth's response to the "mountains of gold" beyond the third door, where Christa Ludwig (for Kertesz) conjures such a vivid sense of wonder. The voices here are good but uneven, Meláth often impressive in the higher registers but lacking in colour (and tonal quality) at mid-range and with a tendency to excessive vibrato. Gustáv Beláček's Bluebeard is theatrically characterful but vocally grey, though I liked his animated singing of the opening sequence. Alsop has the measure of the score, much as she had of The Miraculous Mandarin on a previous Naxos release (6/05). Certainly this Bluebeard is more than good enough to introduce a great and compelling work but if pressured to choose while ignoring of the price-tag I would opt for John Tomlinson's Bluebeard under Bernard Haitink.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, January 2008

Judith’s scream at the opening of the fifth door in Bluebeard must be among the most chilling moments in all opera. But then – at one level – Béla Balázs’s libretto is all about a wife discovering her husband’s hidden violence. It’s also a remarkably compact work that responds well to different interpretations. The classic Kertész recording with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry is gripping from start to finish (remastered on Decca Legends 466 3772), but for me the Haitink disc with with Anne Sofie von Otter and John Tomlinson remains the benchmark. Vividly recorded and gloriously sung it is also unerringly paced (EMI 56162).

So how does Alsop’s Bournemouth performance stack up? Surprisingly well, as it happens, but those who prefer their Bartók red in tooth and claw may find this recording a little tame. Persevere, though, because although Alsop’s reading sounds more intimate and chamber-like than usual it has a compelling dramatic logic that holds your attention all the way through.

The Bournemouth band play well for Alsop who is bound to be missed in Poole, now that she’s taken up her post in Baltimore. The somewhat recessed soundstage suits the conductor’s more low-key approach to the score. That said the C major chords for full orchestra and the fortissimo organ entry at the fifth door are thrillingly caught, though for sheer tingle the EMI recording is hard to beat.

The singing is similarly deceptive. Andrea Meláth’s Judith sounds much more girlish and vulnerable than usual but she clearly understands this role and sings it with a pleasing, secure tone. Even the vocal demands of the infamous fifth door hold no terrors for her. While the Slovak bass Gustáv Beláček is perhaps less commanding than Tomlinson one could argue that his outward charm makes Judith’s wifely compliance – ‘I’ll warm the cold stone ... I’ll warm it with my body’ – that much easier to understand.

Bartók’s colourful but unnerving orchestration sounds a little veiled when compared with the more lucid EMI recording, where the Berliner Philharmoniker bring out – or should one say wring out – every last detail of the score. Predictably all those Bartókian touches – the solo trumpet and woodwind trills at the Armoury (door two) and the harp glissandi, tremolo strings and solo horn that reveal the Garden behind door four – are superbly realised. The real surprise for me is that Haitink, not normally a conductor I warm to, has a solid grasp of the work’s dramatic structure and conveys a growing sense of unease that Alsop, for all her strengths, can’t quite match.

It all comes down to a difference of emphasis, really, but such is the score’s hypnotic power that it rarely fails to entrance the listener. Naxos have produced a robust and intelligent Bluebeard that is well worth hearing, not least for its idiomatic singing. The recording is commendably warm and atmospheric, even if it lacks that last ounce of immediacy. A basic synopsis and background notes are included and the disc is generously cued.

Whether you’re new to Bluebeard or you already have the Kertész and/or the Haitink this outwardly rather restrained performance burns with a slow, steady flame that is impossible to ignore. A fitting climax to Alsop’s tenure with the BSO and an absolute bargain to boot.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2007

Recorded shortly after Marin Alsop’s hugely acclaimed concert performance, her vivid picture of Duke Bluebeard’s gloomy death-ridden castle is captured in a recording of stunning quality and extreme dynamics. It was deemed incomprehensible and unperformable when Bartok submitted his first opera as an entry for a Budapest competition in 1911, and it had to wait eight years for its first performance. By then Europe was having to come terms with the Second Viennese School and was more prepared for a new era of composition. For Bartok, an intensely withdrawn man, that rejection proved so distressing that for some considerable time it caused a mental block in his creativity, and he was never again to write for the opera house. Today it finds many more performances in the concert hall than in the theatre, Judith’s demands that Bluebeard goes around his castle opening the seven mysterious doors presenting producers with little inventive scope. When each door opens it reveals blood as the common factor, Judith realising as she progresses that his previous wives have been murdered, and she joins them as the opera ends. The Naxos recording looks towards creating a stage setting, Judith moving around as she goes to each of the doors, neither singer allowed to have dominating microphones. The powerful and technically superb Andrea Melath is a hectoring Judith against whom Bluebeard holds out little hope of protecting his secrets. That allows the dark-voiced Gustav Belaek to portray Bluebeard as the morose victim of his own mental state which condemns his wives to death so that he can possess them. There have been many other views of this curious relationship placed on disc that are equally viable, but this one works superbly well. If we have heard a more overwhelming organ in the mighty outburst when the Fifth door opens (track 8), we do at that point hear more of the orchestra than usual, and you should go to this track to set your volume control so as to optimise the disc’s massive dynamic range. Whether in shimmering pianissimos or dramatic outbursts the Bournemouth orchestra is superb, the engineers keeping plenty of air around the sound. It has been a work fortunate in having a whole series of superb recorded performance, this one joins their elevated ranks.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group