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Such is the particular joy of Christmas that apparently divorce rates zoom by about 300 per cent in the New Year and divorce lawyers rub their hands with glee. So January seems particularly a pertinent time to look at two new releases based on Charles Perrault’s folktale of excessive marital discord, Barbe bleu, or Bluebeard. By coincidence, both recordings hail from Norway and they provide a great contrast, with Gretry’s Raoul Barbe-Bleu being classed as a comedy, whereas Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle is an expressionist slab of gloom and doom.

Upon closer inspection, the Grétry’s Raoul Barbe-Bleu is not as giddy as one might first assume. It was premiered in Paris in 1789, which sounds like a spectacular case of bad timing: in fact, with its openly critical portrayal of a nobleman it hit the zeitgeist. Though not a smash hit, it did maintain its place, and interestingly a revival five years later was bowdlerised, with all regal and feudal references removed – a case of eighteenth century political correctness. It’s difficult to see how a story so blood-drenched and entrenched in female subservience and abuse could pass for a comedy in the first instance, but Grétry has a good stab, and his music is fleet and often charming, though he doesn’t produce too many killer tunes. This studio recording is based on performances at Trondheim in 2018 and the cast works homogenously under Martin Wählberg’s baton, with bad boy Bluebeard sounding suitably attractive as sung by Matthieu Lécroart.

Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle is more difficult to review – where the Grétry recording has a clear and polished sound, the Bartók is strangely engineered with the orchestra well to the fore. In one way it can be quite pleasing, as the mammoth score is undeniably fascinating. But it does mean that the recording sounds like a tone poem with occasional vocal interventions. I have seen both singers, John Relyea and Michelle DeYoung, perform live relatively recently and this recording gives little indication of the size of their voices, or even the timbre, though DeYoung’s top C when the fifth door is opened is certainly audible – she really belts the note out with no inhibitions. Relyea sounds smooth and polished in his menace. But the main point of interest here is the orchestra under Edward Gardiner, which has a whale of a time with the tonal and polytonal excitements thrown at them. Relyea and DeYoung must have had the scale to match the sound around them, but it is just difficult to tell. So, an interesting release, but probably not that one that will knock a favoured recording off of its top spot.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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