This opera, so dependent on the wedding of text and music, is a natural candidate for Opera-in-English (I believe one of the first recordings of the work, with Jerome Hines and Rosalind Elias, was in English). The argument that Bartók carefully composed it to match the rises and falls of Hungarian remains valid, but understanding the text is just as important to listeners. The diction of both John Tomlinson and Sally Burgess is impeccable without being too stilted (read: British); of course the bass and mezzo-soprano voices are easier to understand than the higher ranges.
Both singers are superb here. If Tomlinson is sounding a bit old, he’s certainly not sounding weak, and the pitch-darkness of his tone is just right for this enigma of a man. “Forbidding” is the word that comes to mind. (He also speaks the Prologue, and sounds properly dour.) Burgess does almost everything right (she drops the high-C at the fifth door too quickly for it to have the resounding effect it ought to) and she can sound genuinely frightened without overstating or exaggerating. Her performance is all-of-a-piece; she’s thoroughly believable.
The score is a study in brightness and grief, chiaroscurically speaking, and the clarity of the recording, the elegance and excellence of the playing of Opera North’s Orchestra, and the leadership of Richard Farnes lets us experience most of the contrasts. It’s not as vivid as renditions by Solti or Kertesz, but it’s fine nonetheless. After the Kertesz (with Ludwig and Berry), this set is a fine choice if the English language doesn’t get in your way–or if it’s exactly what you need.