This elegant and charming album doesn't have something for everyone, but it has a lot for the two types of people for whom it has anything at all-those who enjoy hearing exemplary chamber ensembles comprising flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, and those who enjoy making the acquaintance of unjustly overlooked 19th-century French composers. From Claude-Paul Taffanel's Quintette Pour Instruments à Vent, which opens the program, to Charles Édouard Lefebvre's Suite, Op. 57, which closes it, the works fully deserve the revivification they receive herein.
Composed in 1911 but revised in 1912, 1918, and 1921, this early opera by the greatest Hungarian composer of the 20th century takes Charles Perrault's tale of the murderous Duke Bluebeard and replaces its echoes of Genesis 2 with echoes of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" (right down to the seven symbolism-laden rooms). The enhanced ("super") audio with which this recording was encoded sharpens, deepens, and brightens in all the ways that cutting-edge technology is supposed to. It has nothing, however, on the libretto's psychological insights.
There's a telling asymmetry at work in the necessary spreading of this work, commonly called Die Tragische (the "Tragic Symphony") over two discs: With a running time of 81 minutes, it's too long to fit onto one, yet by placing the final three movements (58 minutes) on Disc Two and leaving the first movement (23 minutes) to fend for itself on Disc One, RCA Red Seal emphasizes the symphony's already obvious bottom-heavy nature. The "super-audio" encoding is partial compensation. The masterly exuberance of the orchestra provides the rest.
Bach and (maybe) Buxtehude (who influenced Bach) you know. But what about their Baroque contemporaries Schop, Schmelzer, Muffat, Johann Philipp Krieger (not to be confused with his brother Johann Krieger), Erlebach, and Pisendel? For that matter, what about Trio Settecento, the contemporary Chicago ensemble that on this album turns back the clock on the last three centuries and brings these composers faithfully to life in vivid, 24-bit digital? Its performances satisfy while whetting the appetite for the more where these pieces came from that one hopes there is.
Mysteries abound when considering Béla Bartók's one-act opera Bluebeard's Castle: Why must only two singing parts (Bluebeard and his bride Judith) bear the entire burden of advancing the plot when, by the end of the opera, Bluebeard's other three wives have also appeared on the stage, apparently alive and therefore capable of vocalizing at least something? Why did the librettist, Béla Balázs, modify the tale as first written by Charles Perrault in the late 1600s when Perrault's version was already more than dark enough for operatic melodrama? Is the universality implied by the quizzical spoken prologue a key to these and other questions or a ruse? Is Balázs' plot linear or circular?
As magnificently performed by the mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova, the bass-baritone Sir Willard White (whose Jamaican ancestry lends the opera an Othello-like tinge), and the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Valery Gergiev, Bluebeard's Castle retains its secrets. Rarely is unrequited foreboding taken to such vertiginous heights.