It is difficult to express the forces conjured by two concerts full of Bartok at Carnegie Hall last weekend. We in our postmodern era must think ourselves able to understand the way the forces of the future mingle with the forces of prehistory, and yet in these concerts, it was a complete mystery. 75 years after his death, Bartok still speaks in riddles.
A third of the hall was empty, and half of those occupying seats spoke Hungarian. A few people walked out before the end of the concerts. At the end of the second concert, half rose to their feet as one, while half kept their asses glued to the seats.
It’s such a shame for those who wouldn’t hear what I heard. For people like me who live for such nights, it’s an enigma how other people didn’t hear the forces of ancient humanity welling from the ground beneath our feet.
This is the essence of Bartok, simultaneously modern and ancient. He does not, as Stravinsky does, reach back into ancient history and update it for the present. Bartok reaches back to a prehistory so ancient that we can only speculate its essence, and updates it into a future so distant that we have barely begun to speculate its properties. Stravinsky’s music is full of ‘intentional wrong notes’ and chords, but it usually operates by a harmonic framework Bach would recognize. Not so Bartok, and if you’d never heard Eastern European folk music, you’d think Bartok invented his own tonality.
It was this sort of folk music which we heard in the first half of each concert. A children’s choir from rural Hungary on the first night, singing antiphonal music that seems like a distant cousin to choral music from France and Flanders in the thirteenth century (only more fun). On the second night, a rank-and-file violinist in the orchestra named Istvan Kadar, sporting a mustache straight out of the fourteenth century, would approach the front with a violist and a bassist to play folk songs Bartok based a number of his compositions upon in a style ‘as Bartok might have heard them.’
To the average American who is not exactly seventy-two, folk music seems like a drudge. But Hungarian/Gypsy folk music is folk music as you’ve never heard it – completely out of place with hippies in an American coffeeshop. Like Indian Classical Music, African Drumming, or Javanese Gamelan Music, this is music with facets so incredibly complex that one has to wonder if any composer in the West ever caught up to it. And yet, unlike the ancient musical traditions of East Asia, this is truly folk music, a popular music of the people.
And it is from this soil of southeastern Europe that Bartok grows these unique sequoias and poplars. I use this purple prosed metaphor because Bartok’s music sounds as though it comes from the wild, subject to forces so complex no applied science can quantify them.
Again and again, Bartok went on his rural trips to through the Carpathian Mountains and Basin, recording the music of Hungarians, Slovakians, Romanians, Transylvanians, Bulgarians, Moldavians, Wallachians, going even further afield to record Greeks and Turks and Algerians. If you spent decades of your life collecting folk music obsessively, you’d have a completely unique musical perspective too.
To an exponential level beyond any before him (and nearly any after), Bartok operates by a different frame of reference. There’s no mistaking his music for anything but tonality (with a very few exceptions…), but normal rules of harmony don’t apply here. To do s Bartok does, you need vast experience with alternate scales, tunings, rhythms, exactly the sort of training few classical musicians get.
Generally speaking, if you play something different than classical music in the West, you’re playing jazz and rock, which still operates in the same world of Western harmony and rhythm. Bartok, on the other hand, learned the music of the Balkans, a landscape dominated by the world of the Roma (or Gypsies as they’re more commonly known). The Romani people hailed originally from Northern India. It’s impossible not to hear vague echoes of Indian ragas. Along the way to Eastern Europe, they passed through Arab countries. Many lived under Muslim Caliphates. under Byzantium, under the Ottoman Empire, and many lived under the moors of Northern Africa and Spain. The larger Western World, with all its alternate perspectives, is bound into the Romani experience, and therefore in the experience of Romani music.
The weekend began with Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin. I frankly wonder if any other performer ever cracked the code of this violent music than these concerts’ visionary master of ceremonies – Ivan Fischer. There are many great Jewish conductors before the public, but I wonder if there hasn’t been a better Jewish conductor since Leonard Bernstein. Occasionally Fischer is so good that I heretically wonder if one has to think further back to find an equivalent great, perhaps a truly golden oldie like Bruno Walter or Victor de Sabata (he was half…).
To this day, Fischer is the only conductor whose recording makes The Miraculous Mandarin sound like something other than amorphous nonsense punctuated by noise… to me at least. Under Fischer’s masterly hands, this is a folk masterpiece, with a dynamic range so extreme that the quiet moments exist in a realm of awe-inspiring suspense. Under Fischer, the instrumental solos finally make musical sense, full of spontaneous sounding vocal inflections that sound like the singing of Romani or Arabs. This live performance of the shorter suite was even better.
The Miraculous Mandarin is far from my favorite Bartok. Perhaps it’s Bartok doing his best impression of The Rite of Spring, describing a plot lurid enough to well exceed the Rite of Spring in ribaldry, gore, and sleaze. But carnage and smut, titillating they may be, are not what Bartok does best. It’s what Stravinsky does best, and would that he’d returned more often to the outrageous vulgarity of Le Sacre as he aged.
Don’t get us wrong, Stravinsky is great genius of music history, but a significant amount of Stravinsky’s appeal is his flash. Once he lost that youthful showmanship, there is no questioning his diminishing returns. Great as later pieces like the Symphony of Psalms and The Fairy’s Kiss were, there is no chance that his later work will ever cause the same fire in an audience ignited by the blazes of Les Noces, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, The Nightingale, Mavra, Renard… Once the exiled Stravinsky abandoned his Russian roots, he became ‘just another great composer,’ not all that much better that other neoclassicists or serialists like Milhaud, Martinu, Respighi. Nono, Donati… What was amazing about later Stravinsky is not the pieces themselves, but that an extraordinary diversity of styles could come from the same composer and still always sound like Stravinsky. That alone is a magnificent achievement, but I don’t want to listen to pieces like his Mass or Cantata ever again, and you can’t make me. Bartok, on the other hand, burrowed ever deeper into his unique genius, growing ever more personal, ever more interesting, ever more expressive.
We’ve now caught up to Stravinsky. Until recently, Stravinsky caused walkouts, but Stravinsky now gets standing ovations and sellout crowds routinely. In twenty-five years or so he might well replace Mahler as the new dead center of the orchestral repertoire. Stravinsky’s perpetual assimilation of distant influences speaks to the generation of Google, and his comfort with the traditions of so many places and eras is perfect for the age of easy air travel and wikipedia.
Bartok, on the other hand, can only be understood through oral tradition. His music may seem ultramodern, but it is so old in spirit that it predates history itself. No amount of reading on wikipedia can give you a way into Bartok’s music – it has to be experienced to be appreciated. At the beginning of his career, Stravinsky made immersions in the oral traditions of Russia as Bartok immersed himself into the Balkans; but the ever schematic Stravinsky turned so many Russian and Ukranian folk songs into something antithetical to their spirit, copying their notations out from books assembled by other musicologists so he could put ultramodern spins on the ancient.
Bartok was incapable of any such apathy to folk roots. His modernism is grounded in fidelity to ancient traditions. He notated the music of folk songs as closely as possible to the way the musicians played them, and from the folk music he recorded so precisely, he created music that is an expands upon the spirit of their inspiration. Stravinsky takes us well into the past, but Bartok takes us into eternity. Stravinsky always winks to us that he is truly a musician of the here and now, Bartok tells us that the here and now is an illusion.
I have a vague memory a Milan Kundera quote in which he speaks of Bartok’s extraordinary piano cycle: “Out of Doors”, in which we experience precisely the opposite of what every other piano composer wants us to experience. In Romantic music like Chopin’s, humans are the subject, but in Bartok Out of Doors suite, we are just another object in the cosmos, our importance little different from an ant’s, and therefore compelled to contemplate the infinite and eternal around us. Our very subjectivity is an illusion.
This illusion of the here and now is perhaps the key to understanding Bartok’s famous and much more romantic Concerto for Orchestra, which concluded the first program. The Concerto for Orchestra is Bartok’s valedictory orchestral piece, some of it written in a New York hospital bed as the now penniless master sat upright, dying from leukemia in an unfamiliar country, while his war-torn homeland, plagued by war since time immemorial, was butchered still further.
The work seems to begin with the stillness of death and disease. The lower strings emit a few diseased, wheezing breaths, and yet within two minutes, a soft trumpet call seems to warp the dreaming exile back into the land of his birth, amid dancers, singers, games, jokes, only to be transported every so often back to the pain and fatigue of his cancer bed. For those who really hear this work, the ache of nostalgia palpitates like a dying heart, the beautiful memories of better times, of eras in the palace of memory when life was enjoyable and you felt loved. Close your eyes and even death itself can be an illusion.
Compared to their recording 20 years ago, Fischer’s live performance last week was frankly a bit disappointing. It was nothing less than a very good performance with third and fifth movements nothing short of extraordinary, but I wonder if the concerts were so ambitious that the Concerto got slightly cheated out of rehearsal time. It’s a shame, because their old recording (linked 2 paragraphs above) is electricity personified:
The real reason to come though, the revelation of revelations, was their performance of Bartok’s 55-minute opera: Bluebeard’s Castle. I’ve never heard Ivan Fischer’s recording, but who needs it? It was the experience of a lifetime, one of the half-dozen or so best live performances I’ve ever heard in my lifetime of any work at all. I listened later to the live relay on WQXR, but no recording can hope to give even a small bit of that extraordinary atmosphere, sound, nuance, color, and sweep.
The best way I can explain why is to propose that in order to truly play the music rather than the notes, great classical music needs to be lived with for a entire lifetime. Lots of musicians cherish world premiere recordings, thinking that this is music performed within a living, oral tradition received straight from the composer. But how can there be a living tradition of performance for a piece of music just written? For classical music to attain classic status, it has to be continually reinterpreted, lending itself to an infinity of interpretative possibilities. Some interpretations will overstress the meaning behind the notes, others will understate them, but over time, a composite interpretation emerges from the truly great performers that charges a score with more meaning than we ever thought it possible to gain from that score. It gives us not just Beethoven’s Beethoven or Bartok’s Bartok, but the Bartok we need, the Bartok which earned its classic status for all time. Bluebeard’s Castle, now more than 100 years old, has lived that whole lifetime, much as The Rite of Spring has, and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, and Mahler’s Tenth, and Sibelius’s Fourth, and Ives’s Fourth, and Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, and Puccini’s Il Trittico. Believe it or not, these were all considered problem pieces once upon a time, challenging to audiences and performers alike. Today, they are played with more understanding, more virtuosity, more emotional expression, than ever before in their now long histories.
When I hear Ivan Fischer (or the recently deceased Zoltan Koscis) play Bartok, I hear a grand summation of an entire tradition. Bartok, a fiercely unsentimental composer and hard working professor, taught many Hungarian musicians who played him in a fiercely unsentimental manner. When you heard Antal Dorati or Gyorgy Sandor or Georg Solti play Bartok, you immediately understood how Bartok earned his fearsome reputation. When Bartok was played by international musical celebrities like Leonard Bernstein or Sviatoslav Richter, the romanticism was brought out to the point of sentimentality. However emotionally perceptive at times, the wit and fun of Bartok was missing. But now, nearly three-quarters of a century after his death, we finally have a mature generation of performers that can put Bartok in something closer to a proper context.
Bela Bartok was a fiercely private man. Possibly autistic, he was a man so obsessed by his work that the idea of human relationships filled him with a kind of terror. Bluebeard’s Castle is an opera about secrets. Shortly before Bartok began work on it, he married a woman he’d later divorce. In ‘just’ one hour his new wife learns the seven terrible secrets of Bluebeard’s soul, which lie behind the seven doors locked doors of his castle. Behind the seventh door lies his final, terrible secret, that he murdered his first three wives…. Or did he?
Is Bluebeard simply a murderer, or is he tragically insane? Did he even murder his wives, or is this all an elaborate fictional guessing game? One famous Hungarian conductor, Istvan Kertesz, speculated that Bluebeard was in fact the hero of the opera, a tragic figure in horrendous pain, while his wife Judith was a sadistic harpy determined to extract Bluebeard’s secrets regardless how he felt, and therefore practically deserved to be murdered. That’s more than a bit extreme – anyone should be able to understand why a wife might be vigilant in discovering whether or not her husband might kill her. And yet, there is an unmistakeable tragic grandeur about Bluebeard. However perverse it may be to feel sympathy for him, the music shows that he is clearly a man in terrible anguish. And yet,… it’s not necessarily the anguish of a human being. The tale of the wife-murderer Bluebeard was once a famous legend, but the anguish here is not the anguish of Mahler or Tchaikovsky. Bluebeard’s anguish is the anguish of the macabre, incredibly stylized and gothic, anguish as Dracula or a Blood Countess might feel it. Transylvania is right next door to Hungary, and during the opera you can almost hear the laugh of Bela Lugosi outside the castle as bats fly up from the roof. There were moments during the opera when some members of the audience laughed during this extraordinary performance, and even as I felt rage at the distraction I couldn’t quite blame them. I don’t know if they were comprehending or simply uncomfortable, but for the first time I wondered myself, is this opera in fact a black comedy?
Whether Bluebeard’s Castle is meant as tragedy or a black comedy, the true spirit of Bluebeard is concealed by many layers of irony. In this era of ‘metoo’, Bluebeard speaks to us with renewed urgency. We’re told that every possession behind every door in Bluebeard’s castle is stained with blood, but whose blood is it: his victims, or his own? Judith is understandably perplexed and anxious about what lies behind the doors, but she still comes across as rather manipulative. She must, or else we will have no sympathy for this antihero who may have committed unspeakable atrocities. Even if Judith seems a bit of a shrew, we are, naturally, more on Judith’s side than we are on Bluebeard’s, and yet Bluebeard is a mystery from which neither Judith nor the audience can avoid seduction. We, like Judith, are tantalized by the possibility that he might be a murderer, and mimetically complicit in Judith’s manipulations. We don’t even know with any certainty that Bluebeard has murdered or kidnapped anyone. Is this all taking place within Judith’s imagination? Or is it taking place in Bluebeard’s? Or is it taking place in ours?
Bartok wrote this opera on the cusp of World War One, and he was not quite the fiercely dissonant composer he’d be in ten years. He was a composer in thrall to the airy textures of Debussy and the gory and ‘realistic’ musico/dramatic effects of Richard Strauss. Where it differs from his models is in the twenty-eight-year-old Bartok’s knowledge of folk music, which was already stupendous. With its Arabic and Russian influences, Balkan folk music is far more dissonant and flavorful than most folk music to its north-east, which has the diatonicism of most classical music without classical music’s complexity. More than any composer short of Schoenberg and Berg, Bartok used dissonance in Bluebeard to highlight chords that crystalized the experience of searing emotional agony as no composer yet has equalled. After Bluebeard, Bartok moved in a different, much less subjective direction. For a more romantic composer like Mahler, a move away from personal expression is a move away from what makes his music compelling. But for an ascetic like Bartok, a move away from personal expression brings us still closer to his personality.
The opera only has two singers, and crucially, both singers were Hungarian and therefore handled the conversational Hungarian rhythms with absolute comfort. Bluebeard’s Castle is, above anything else, an opera about newlyweds talking to one another. Accompanying them was the orchestra Ivan Fischer founded, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, an orchestra designed to stave off the mind-numbing routine of week-in-week-out orchestral performance. Fischer has done all kinds of odd things to change the concert experience which I won’t recount here. A few years ago, I heard his orchestra play Beethoven’s 9th – but where the hell was the chorus? At the appropriate moment, the chorus stood up, in the middle of the hall, spaced apart from one another all throughout. We were all immersed in the sound of the chorus as though Beethoven’s 9th were sung to us by a choir of angels.
Bluebeard’s Castle is a work I travel well out of my way to hear, but I will never hear a better live performance. These are musicians whom, whether because of their Hungarian-ness or intimate familiarity with Bartok’s music by being from Hungary, ‘speak’ the language of Bartok’s tricky harmonies and rhythms with absolute authority. The performance was on the quick side, probably closer to 50 than an hour, and perhaps one could have wished for a bit more brooding atmosphere; but the fast tempos allowed the musicians to play this performance as though exhaled in one breath – not a single moment of lull. We not only received Bluebeard’s full measure of drama and violence (those climaxes, my god), but a full measure of beauty and warmth. Only once else in my life do I remember hearing an orchestra play with such magic quiet as in the softest passages of this opera, and it was the Budapest Festival Orchestra, back in 2003, playing the Faust Symphony of Liszt.
Bluebeard’s Castle is an opera that depends on its orchestra to conjure objects before us that would be incredibly banal if we simply saw them represented on a stage – torture devices, a weapon armory, a treasury of gold, a sunlit garden, a vast vista of land, a lake of tears, and an ambiguous murder, It lives and dies by the ability of the orchestra to give these folk objects a visible, tactile presence in our ears. It is a folk tale which must be conjured to modern ears with all of the wonder that a bardic poet could endow to an illiterate audience.
And this is why I suspect that Bartok still keeps his face half hidden from us. We are still not global enough a world; too monoglot, too uncomprehending of music and art outside our traditions, still not respectful enough of the other cultures and social classes who live amongst us, and our scientific age is completely uncomprehending of any aspect of the humanities that cannot be quantified. We are still generations away from a true reckoning.
To understand this composer so many elderly listeners still find incomprehensible, we also have to realize that Hungary is the most incomprehensible of European countries. Its linguistic roots have no relation to any country until you get as far away as Estonia and Finland. The Finno-Urgic language group has no other country on which it’s taken hold in modern times except these three countries – variant Finno-Urgic dialects were spoken in Northern Scandinavia and Central Russia, but its protolanguage would seem to be a tongue so ancient that at a point well before the beginning of recorded history, the tribes split in three between Central Russia, Northern Scandinavia, and Central Europe; probably somewhere along the Alpide belt, a series of mountains covering 17% of the world’s surface that originate with the Himilayas!
All nations have a period they look back upon as the years of their glory. Nationalist yearnings seem to come with the deed to the land. The allegedly glorious period that Hungarian nationalists look back upon nostalgically is the late Middle Ages under the Arpad Dynasty. The Kingdom of Hungary first united on after the breakup of the Carolingian Empire (the empire of Charlemagne), in 895 around the Carpathian Basin – a Central European lowland surrounded by the Alps on one side and the Carpathian Mountains on the other. In 895, the Hungarians, or Magyars, formed the ‘Federation of Hungarian Tribes,’ but a figure named Grand Prince Arpad emerged as the dominant ruler in the early 900’s and formed the Kingdom of Hungary. In 972, Grand Prince Arpad’s great-grandson, Grand Prince Geza, converted to Christianity, and his son, Grand Prince Stephen, was named the first King of Hungary in exactly the year 1000. During his 38 year rule King Stephen subdued the Magyar tribes still in rebellion against the Arpad Dynasty, and completely unified the Carpathian Basin under Hungarian rule.
After a half-millenium of independent Hungarian rule, during which Hungarians successfully withstood two campaigns against them from the Huns emerging from Central Asia (unrelated to Hungarians so far as we know), the Hungarians had to withstand 200 years of military campaigns and massacres from the Ottomans (Turks) to their south. Eventually the Hungarian population was so depleted that Hungary could only withstand their Turkish invaders with help from the Austrian Hapsburgs, who came to Hungary’s rescue only under the proviso that Hungarians had to bend the knee to the Austrian Empire, a rule that would continue for 200 years.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a conglomeration of two dozen different ethnicities and languages, and many of them felt a direct kinship with their ‘big brother’ countries to their the East and West. Austrians themselves were Germans, and in spite of the empire often being at war with some German state or other, most Austrians longed to overthrow the Hapsburgs and unite with their Teutonic brethren in a Pan-German Empire. Many ethnicities under Austrian rule were Slavic Catholics in origin: Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croatians, or they were Latins who practiced Orthodox Christianity like the Romanians, or, like the Serbians, were both Slavic and Orthodox, and they all therefore looked to the the Russian Empire – ultimate Orthodox Slavs, to advocate their interests to Austria.
Hungarians had no Slavic or German origins. Their origins were from further east, or further north, nobody really knows… So shrouded in ancient mystery are their origins that their closest brethren are the people they go at such length today to oppress: the Romani. There are only 600-700 thousand Romani living in contemporary Hungary, but roughly 86% of the ten million Romani around the world speak Hungarian as a mother tongue. Perhaps therein lies the origin’s animus – the Romani people are Hungarians as they were in their origins: nomadic and living by rules which only the initiated understand. Together, the Hungarians and Romani take us back to a nomadic Europe from an era when life was not that different than life on any other continent.
And yet, it was because of their distinction from the other peoples under Austrian rule that Hungarians – if not Romani – were able to secure a semi-autonomy and political parity with the Austrians. There was no ‘big brother’ to look after Hungarians, and they needed to fight to make the Empire look after their interests. The Hungarian Revolution of 1848 was nearly successful in securing independence, and for the next twenty years Hungarians paid dearly for it with martial law. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire nearly collapsed in 1866 from a very costly war with Prussia, Hungary yet again demanded independence and nearly secured it. What followed was the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. For fifty years, the Hungarians were, truly, the second people of the Empire, with their own Diet (Parliament), armed forces, legal system and fiscal policy, all answerable to no one but the Emperor himself. No minority in the world had yet secured so much prosperity and power for themselves as Hungarians during the late Hapsburg Empire.
But then came World War I. Hungarians, who ran their own army, were considered the most disciplined soldiers in the Empire, and therefore were sent on the riskiest missions. Of the 1 million Austro-Hungarian soldiers killed in World War I (nearly half their 2.2 million soldiers), the highest casualty rate was Hungarian. In World War I’s aftermath, The short-lived Kingdom of Hungary lost 2/3rds of its territory to the demands of Romanians, Slovaks, Croats, Slovens, and Serbs to live in nations among their own peoples. Within two years, Hungary became first a democracy, then a Communist state, then a military dictatorship, which it stayed for an uninterrupted twenty-four years under Admiral Miklos Horthy, pursuing an earlier, lighter version of the antisemitic laws that would soon beguile the more famous dictatorship to their Northwest. During World War II, Horthy made Hungary a client state of Hitler’s.
After World War II, Hungary formed a democratic coalition government in which conservative and liberal democratic parties included socialist and communist parties. You know what comes next. More than forty years of Communist dictatorship and a brutally suppressed rebellion in 1956. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was great hope, as everywhere in Eastern Europe, for democracy to finally take root. Take root it has, but democracy means very little without liberal rule of law, and so long as Viktor Orban remains President, there is little liberal rule of law of which to speak. Romani are yet again ostracized in Hungarian society, so are Jews, native speakers of any language but Hungarian, and refugees from the Middle East.
The Hungarian people have had a very bad 500 years. It’s not a bad 2000 years like us, but such is history’s way, which dooms some people to century after century of horror until they become a living link to an historical epoch whose traditions are otherwise lost to the ether.
There are no other Hungarian giants in the high arts than Bartok and perhaps a few composers in his wake. There were a few highly praised Hungarian novelists in the final years of Communism like Imre Kertesz, Peter Esterhazy and Peter Nadas, but none of them were considered writers in the first rank of the Pantheon. Among Hungarian artists, only Bartok (and perhaps Ligeti) casts so giant a shadow over the history of art.
After this overlong history lesson, the reason should be relatively obvious. The Hungarians, truer than any other European peoples to their pre-historic roots, have so little need for high arts when their folk arts are so incredibly wonderful. Compare just one minute of Hungarian or Gypsy folk music to its German equivalent, and you understand why classical music reached its apogee in Germany rather than Hungary. Hungarian/Gypsy folk music is so fascinatingly rich and perfect, German folk music sucks. Look at Magyar/Romani dancing, look at traditional Hungarian costume and embroidery, listen to the fascinating complexity of Hungarian folk tales. These are traditions that were fully modern millennia before modernity. The folk music has complex meter and harmonies to rival Stravinsky and Bartok and Janacek and Villa Lobos, and the folk tales all the surreality of Kafka and Borges and Garcia Marquez and Bashevis Singer, all of it existing since time immemorial as a civilization that needs no modernity to make it more sophisticated. Had modernity not interrupted Hungary so rudely, they could probably keep existing and evolving into an infinite future, accumulating the new flavors of its surrounding environs with every generation; having already been positioned historically and geographically to accumulate influences Germanic, Latin, Slavic, Arabic, Central Asian, and Indian into their own unique cultural voice over a period of millennia. Shall we as a species ever have anything like Bartok’s humility before a natural evolution too complicated for us to ever understand? Have we been spoiled by living apart from the land? Have we ruined the natural evolution of the world by ignoring it?
7 Essential Bluebeards:
London Philharmonic/Sir Georg Solti/Kolos Kovacs/Sylvia Sass Most people will tell you that the only recording of Bluebeard you need is Istvan Kertesz conducting the London Symphony with the famous Austrain married couple, Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig, singing the two roles. Nonsense. Bartok wrote Bluebeard’s Castle in his 20s, and it is from a generation earlier than most of Bartok’s great masterpieces. There are so many great recordings of this endlessly rewarding piece, but I believe you need Hungarian singers who can sing the especially conversational text as though they’re speaking it, and a conductor who honors as many of Bartok’s many, many, many tempo changes as possible. At bottom, this is a work about a husband and wife speaking to each other, and the Hungarian must feel conversational. A number of great conductors who should know better ditch Bartok’s instructions in pursuit of their own agendas – Kubelik, Fricsay, Boulez, Kertesz – and this music forgives no such crimes. Of all the great Hungarian conductors who essayed this piece, none of them got closer to the campy, drugged out eros of this piece than the most famous of Hungarian exile conductors, Bartok pupil Sir Georg Solti, who balances his usual penchant for musical violence with the need for brooding gloom to create the atmosphere in this darkest of black folk tales. Solti is aided in his quest for drama by Hungarian singers who sing as though they’re speaking, and a Judith for all time from his Hungarian protege soprano, Sylvia Sass.
London Symphony/Antal Dorati/Muhaly Szekely/Olga Szonyi The most dramatic recording of Bluebeard is easily Antal Dorati’s. It’s perhaps a little too dramatic for its own good, clocking in five minutes faster than average and therefore stinging a bit on the brooding atmosphere, but there is no arguing with the ferociously quesy Grande Guignol Dorati conjures out of this bloody-minded score, nor is there with the electric idiomaticity of his Hungarian singers.
Bavarian State Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Julia Varady Let’s give credit to non-Hungarians where it’s due. I don’t know if Fischer-Dieskau, the classical singer of singers, spoke any Hungarian at all, and certainly I know of no other case where the aging Fischer-Dieskau sings Hungarian, but Bluebeard has so often been the sight of wooden bass-baritones singing without expression while Judith does all the heavy lifting. No Bluebeard brought more sensitivity to the nuances of the text than Fischer-Dieskau. His Hungarian wife, Julia Varady, responds to every expressive challenge with equal expression, while the forever underrated Wolfgang Sawallisch accompanies as always with self-effacing excellence, nailing so many nuances of the score that elude others, letting the harmonic tonalities breathe into the ear like a native, and finding a wealth of true impressionistic color no other conductor can equal. The recording is a model of foreigners paying properly respectful homage to a foreign country’s birthright. Rarely has this music had so much heart, and while it is not objectively the most accomplished of the six, I wonder if this is not my personal favorite.
Hungarian Radio Symphony/Janos Ferencsik/Gyorgy Melis/Katalin Kasza The most naturally Hungarian feeling of Bluebeard’s is any of the four recordings by Janos Ferencsik, the only great Hungarian conductor to stay behind in Communist Hungary. Perhaps it’s all a little too internalized. There are both more atmospheric and more dramatic recordings, but Ferencsik so understands the natural Hungarian-ness of the piece that he makes it sound as tonal and naturally musical as anything in Mozart or Schubert, unequalled in this regard until the appearance of Ivan Fischer. The music simply breathes as only possible when musicians understand in their bones the intentions behind the melody, harmony, rhythm, and language in a manner that no non-Magyar has yet equalled.
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy/Jerome Hines/Rosalind Elias Nobody thinks much about Eugene Ormandy (formerly Jeno Blau) anymore, and frankly, Ormandy deserves it. It’s hard to believe that there’s ever been a conductor who churned out a greater number of generic recordings than Ormandy, who lead and maintained one of the all-time greatest orchestral instruments for nearly fifty years only to do nothing interesting with his instrument. His recordings generally are perfect musical vapidity. The Ormandy/Philadelphia recordings have, to this day, the best orchestral playing you’ll ever hear, and nary an original illumination in them. Yet occasionally, Ormandy could wake up and stun you, and rarely ever moreso than in this English-translated Bluebeard’s Castle, one of the great assumptions of this tremendously difficult piece of music that makes you forget that it’s supposed to be in Hungarian. Bluebeard needs a great orchestra, and no greater one has ever recorded it.
Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnanyi/Falk Struckmann/Charlotte Hellekant Towering as he is, the very German Christoph von Dohnanyi sometimes seems so like a Prussian drill sergeant on the podium that he needs a monacle and dueling scar, but it’s easy to forget that he is the grandson of one of the great unsung Hungarian composers, Erno Dohnanyi. Follow the score and metronome with this performance, Dohnanyi nails tempo after tempo, dynamic after dynamic, expression mark after expression mark. The result is as atmospheric and Hungarian a performance as there is, but unfortunately the performance was caught on youtube at a very low level. It’s worth it to hear one of the great maestri of the now passing older generation at the height of his powers.
#7: London Symphony/Istvan Kertesz/Walter Berry/Christa Ludwig Another instance when Bluebeard and Judith were married in real life, and the power couple of the Vienna Opera must have had ample time to rehearse together. This most famous recording of Bluebeard features the very best singing team, the two responding nuance by nuance to each other’s line readings, and doing so in fantastic recorded sound. The problem is the very young Istvan Kertesz, who died in his mid-40s of drowning in Israel’s Sea of Galilee, and never truly realized his potential. The performance he elicits from the LSO is perfectly good, and the playing itself is great, the problem is that in the face of so many other more experienced Hungarian conductors, the essential ‘Bartokness’ is missing, it’s flattened into something much more traditionally romantic and operatic – yearning like a more dissonant Tchaikovsky. But by the end, it loses steam and the attention begins to wander after being suffocated by all that very un-Hungarian sehnsucht. It’s a very good recording, and if you didn’t know any of the others, you’d be unaware that anything is missing. Perhaps I’m too hard on it, it’s got two great performances at its center and introduced generations of music lovers to this score of wonders. That should be enough to give any recording a place of honor.
Concerto for Orchestra
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivan Fischer Those old Bartok performances are great. Showcases by Bartok pupils and associates like Reiner, Dorati, and Solti, for their great Western orchestras to strut their stuff. But a more recent vintage of Hungarian performers is able to grasp the essential ‘Hungarianness’ of the music in ways that eluded many of their older colleagues in America and England. Frankly, compared to their recording 20 years ago, Fischer’s live performance last week was a bit disappointing. It was nothing less than a very good performance with third and fifth movements nothing short of masterly, but I wonder if the concerts were so ambitious that the Concerto got slightly cheated out of rehearsal time. It’s a shame, because this recording is electricity personified: a lighter wear on its dancing shoes than the live performance, much better shaded and phrased, with more extreme dynamics, and so exciting at times that your jaw drops to the floor. When Ivan Fischer recorded Bartok in the mid-to-late 90’s, the (very small these days) classical music world felt shook up, we’d never heard Bartok like this. Bartok was no longer a byword for dissonant virtuosity, but was atmospheric and songful and humorous and even nostalgic. No one could ever call Bartok ‘noise’ ever again. And yet, just listen, has there ever been a more exciting performance?
Hungarian National Philharmonic/Zoltan Koscis Zoltan Koscis was already one of the greatest pianists who ever lived, and he was probably the greatest Bartok pianist since Bartok himself (apologies to Gyorgy Sandor). But once he picked up the baton, he became, almost beyond question, the single greatest Bartok performer. If Ivan Fischer made his music through electricity and vitality, Koscis makes his mark here through color and atmosphere. Of all the many great recordings of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, there has never been a more atmospheric, more colorful, more nostalgic recording with more pungent dance rhythms of the Concerto Zenekarra than this. I doubt any performance has ever captured the essential ‘Hungarian-ness’ of this work better.
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Paavo Jarvi It’s just a YouTube capture, a bad sounding live recording of a conductor of our day (admittedly a great and still underrated one) who seems otherwise to have no especial connection to Bartok. And yet, just listen – the dark atmosphere, the violence, the humor, the dance rhythms, they’re all there, brought out and pointed up in ways that put more famous Bartokians to shame. It may just be a radio broadcast, but this is, quite simply, the best performance I’ve ever heard of this all too familiar masterwork.
Philadelphia Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach Another recording of relatively recent vintage that blows older more famous recordings out of the water. The all-important central movement (third) has never ever been done better than here, full of the atmosphere and terrors of night. Eschenbach, forever ripped apart by critics for his unorthodox interpretations, shows a manner of playing this piece that sounds both spontaneous and unimposed.
Chicago Symphony/Fritz Reiner You simply can’t leave this recording off the list. It’s just too iconic, too wrapped in legend, too well-played, too well-recorded, too awe-inspiring. It won’t tell you quite the whole story; next to recordings of fifty years later it gets so little of the Hungarian atmosphere, but the seat-of-the-pants virtuosity of the story it tells is electrifying.