Ferenc Fricsay (pronounced, I am told, fair-entz free-shoy) was a superb Bartok conductor. I have long harbored a slight preference for his mono DG recordings of Concerto For Orchestra and the Music For Strings, Percussion & Celesta over the more celebrated stereo RCA accounts by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (of course, I keep both!). So I was REALLY looking forward to hearing Fricsay's way with Bartok's operatic masterpiece "Bluebeard's Castle" and the composer's most significant choral work "Cantata Profana." And in terms of conducting, there is little here to disappoint: these are wonderfully impassioned, extremely detailed accounts in good 1957 stereo sound (Bluebeard) and decent 1951 mono (Cantata).
So, where are the problems? For me, this Bluebeard is just a little disappointing because: 1) there are some unfortunate cuts in the score and the spoken prologue is omitted, 2) it's sung in German instead of Hungarian, and 3) the vocal casting is less than ideal. Let me try to explain, point by point.
Bluebeard's Castle, in my view, ranks with Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande as one of the two great modern opera masterpieces of the early 20th Century. And, curiously, I feel that both actually work more satisfactorily through listening at home than in the opera house (I have seen both works staged, and somehow they fell short of what I imagined in my own mind). While Bluebeard owes a debt to Wagner, the Richard Strauss of "Elektra," and the vocal declamation of Mussorgsky, it is nevertheless a very original and unique work. Bartok's own idiom, based on a parlando-rubato tradition in Hungarian folk music, is filled with a fateful, almost ballad-like allegory about individual loneliness and the dark consequences of peering too insistently into another person's soul. Bartok's music, while impassioned, is also saturated with ambiguity and ambivalence. So interpreting it effectively is a pretty tricky business.
For me, it works best when the ENTIRE score is used (there's not a single wasted note in Bartok's music). That includes the bard's spoken prologue, which provides listeners with valuable information on just what Bartok and his librettist Bela Balasz are going to portray. Example: "Once upon a time ... the phrase is old, and yet it gives my rhyme the tempting of a half-open door ... Enter! A realm waits you that without you cannot come into being; the realm of myth! Still thinking of your lives? There find them with New meanings, for our story is about you, Ladies and Gentleman."
The rhythms and inflections of Bartok's opera are so inextricably entwined with the Hungarian language that I find it EXTREMELY odd that a Hungarian conductor like Fricsay preferred to perform it in a German translation. And that peculiarity is only magnified by the Bluebeard of baritone Fischer-Dieskau and the Judith of mezzo-soprano Hertha Topper. F-D is, of course, a great singer, and he's in fine voice here. But his diction is SO Germanic (with all those rolled r's and spitting sibilants), and frankly he shouts and bellows more than he sings. It's an extremely exaggerated reading of a character that needs subtlety and ambiguity to be sympathetic. Hertha Topper is quite engrossing, despite a slight wobble. But Fricsay's command of the score is absolute: hundreds of tiny details leap out and grab your attention (e.g., the little harp quivers in the Lake of Tears), and the orchestral playing is magnificent. However, due to the shortcomings noted, I think this performance is more of a supplement than a core selection.
The first-ever studio Bluebeard, recorded in 1953 for the Bartok LP label, was given absolutely complete and in Hungarian. Although in mono, the engineering (by the composer's son Peter Bartok) is one of the glories of the LP era (terrific sound that's better than almost ANYTHING from Mercury or RCA). The fine, subtly under-played Bluebeard of bass Endre Koreh and the attractive Judith of soprano Judith Hellwig are major assets (the speaking role of the Bard in the prologue is given by Erno Lorsy). Another real plus is the great leadership of Austro-Czech conducter Walter Susskind with a first-class pickup orchestra called the New Symphony of London. Susskind's pacing is just about perfect, and he's every bit as detailed as Fricsay. Susskind's Bluebeard (I've owned it on LP for over 30 years) remains my recommendation for the best studio recording, and it's now available on CD for $17 directly from Bartok Records on the internet.
But there is one other recording that, in some respects, bests all the others. It's a "live" 1951 performance with the Budapest Radio Orchestra, led by Hungarian conductor Georges Sebastian (1903-1989) and formerly available on an Arlecchino CD (see my review). It has the great basso profundo Mihaly Szekely as Bluebeard (Bartok's favorite in the role), for whom Bartok actually transposed down the tessitura and slightly re-orchestrated the work in a revised edition (this performance was its European premiere). Szekely's Bluebeard is simply magnificent: straightforwardly noble, gorgeously sung, and tragically sympathetic. The Judith is mezzo Klara Palanky, long regarded in Hungary as the last century's greatest exponent of the role. She is plaintive, sensitive, and in fine voice (though she ducks the High C "Ah!" at the opening of the 5th Door). Sebastian leads a performance in good mono sound that is painted in broader strokes than Fricsay's but which is no less impressive in its cumulative force (like Fricsay and most other conductors, Sebastian omits the spoken prologue). If you can find it, this is a Bluebeard that any Bartok lover will enjoy hearing.
Strangely, I'm not as bothered by the Cantata Profana being in mono and also sung in German. The orchestral power of Fricsay's reading is simply overwhelming, and Helmut Krebs is the best tenor I have ever heard in this role.
For Fricsay's inspired conducting in Bluebeard and the outstanding account of the Cantata, this CD is recommended. But there is more to this opera than we are given here, and Bartok's operatic masterpiece is heard more fully in the versions conducted by Susskind & Sebastian. There are other good recordings (e.g., Dorati & Kertesz), but these are the three I prefer to hear.