Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Library Sale CD Trove II

Reviewing my CD finds from half-price day at the Friends of the Multnomah County Library Annual Booksale.

Béla Bartók
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Gwynne Howell, Sally Burgess, soloists
Sung in English (translated from the Hungarian)

When you hear that Béla Bartók based his compositions on the folk music of his native Hungary, you start off by imagining the jolly music of the simple village folk. But then, you discover that the village folk of Hungary have some rather different ideas about harmony than you do. And then you come to realize that Bartók wasn't so much arranging perky folk melodies for orchestra as stripping them down to their music-theoretical genome and then building his own pieces up from the resultant musical fragments.

Bartók is therefore not an approachable, easy-to-love folksong-influenced composer like, say, the "Bohemian" Dvorak or Britain's Vaughn Williams. His music ranges from the mildly challenging (Concerto for Orchestra) to Oh-My-God dense and angular (The String Quartets), and when push "play" on a new piece, you never quite know which Bartók you'll be working with.

It turns out, though, that Duke Bluebeard's Castle is fairly accessible both as Bartók and as opera. It is a modernist piece in one act, scored for only two voices and intended to be staged with very simple, spartan sets and lighting effects. The plot goes like this: Duke Bluebeard (no, he’s not a pirate) brings his new wife home to his castle, and she immediately wants to open up the seven doors around the main room and let some light and air into the place. Bluebeard suggests that this might not be a great idea, but Mrs. Bluebeard persists and persists, opening one door after another, until eventually she opens the seventh door and then kind of wishes she hadn't.

One of the reasons that Bluebeard works for the casual modern listener is that it is a horror opera. Many people have trouble with dissonant orchestral music in general, but we are completely accustomed to it in soundtracks to horror or suspense movies. Because of this, it feels appropriate for an opera which consists of a rising arc of seven suspenseful scenes -- as Mrs. Bluebeard talks her way into opening each of the doors, all leading to what we're pretty sure must be bad news behind door number seven. Grisly details along the way -- a torture chamber, a garden watered in blood -- complete the grim mood, and seem well-matched with the orchestra’s dense, gnashing chords.

I've heard a few Mozart operas sung in English, and the effect has always been pretty nasty on my ear. Bluebeard sounds just fine in English, though, maybe because of its modernism, or because of its obscurity, or whatever. I'm not sure. This 1993 recording, one of the CDs that is (was?) sent out with every edition of BBC Music magazine, is clear as a bell, so much so it's startling at the end when the audience starts applauding -- where did they come from?

Prognosis: Will keep CD. It's never going to be in heavy rotation, but it will be a good go-to disc whenever that ol' lesser-known modernist opera bug comes biting.

What? The lesser-known modernist opera bug never bites you? Weird.

Available butt-cheap on Amazon if you’re into this kind of thing.


Elizabeth said...

I'm beginning to regret missing the book sale, now.

Elaine said...

Really? An orchestra of whales? Wouldn't that be kind of....screech-eek-oooOOOOOoooooo-creeee-eeeechy?

Michael5000 said...

@Elaine: And the special award for Dorky Human Spellchecker goes to....

Elaine said...

Oh YAY!!! So I didn't miss DorkFest after all! Spending 6-8 hrs every day at hospital...sapping my creativity, but not my spellcheckery. Loved the maps (above.)