Bluebeard’s Castle, Royal Festival Hall

It was the
obvious and fitting choice, both as idea and reality. But first came a far from
negligible opening to the concert: a visit from Debussy, albeit in still
earlier guise than the composer of PellÈas, and the third of
BartÛk’s three piano concertos, the soloist again Yefim Bronfman.

PrÈlude ‡ l’aprËs-midi d’un faune is pretty much
universally considered to mark the dawn of twentieth-century music. (The
programme note by Malcom Gillies presented Debussy’s work as a candidate,
but oddly claimed ‘some date it as late as 1913, with Stravinsky’s
Le sacre du printemps.’ No one would gainsay the importance of
The Rite of Spring, yet, by the same token, surely no one would date
the beginning of twentieth-century music after Schoenberg’s
emancipation of the dissonance.) In the hands of Esa-Pekka Salonen — he
only picked up a baton later, preferring to mould the music here more freely
PrÈlude ‡ l’aprËs-midi received a fine performance.
Samuel Coles’s opening flute solo was not only not conducted by Salonen;
he did not even herald it, leaving Coles to begin in his own time. He did not
disappoint; nor did Chris Cowie’s equally fine oboe solo work. Salonen
shaped an initially languid reading, soon bathed in the warm glow of the
Philharmonia strings. There was certainly a sense of the novelty of form we can
all too readily take for granted, but which would point the way not only to
later Debussy and to a number of works by BartÛk and other composers of his
generation, but even to post-war composers such as Boulez, as conductor one of
Debussy’s — and BartÛk’s — foremost interpreters.
Flexibility of tempo proved the key that unlocked malleability of form. Finally
came that undefinable, ineffable magic that marks a distinguished performance
of this great work.

Such lyricism also informed the opening of the piano concerto, Bronfman
presenting it as if in a single breath, foretelling an over-arching melodic
approach. The tempo adopted, however, sounded slower than usual; moreover, the
general style adopted was more classical, post-Mozartian even, than one often
hears. Sometimes I wanted a little more fire from both soloist and orchestra in
the first movement: though an interesting reading, it was ultimately a little
underwhelming. The cool but not cold dignity with which Bronfman announced his
opening statements in the slow movement was striking. Thereafter, the
extraordinary night-music — surely the most interesting part of a
concerto that does not always show BartÛk at his best — was piquant and
lively under Salonen. He clearly relished the colours that point back to Ravel
but also look forward to Messiaen. A relatively cool classicism paid dividends
with the counterpoint of the finale, but elsewhere much sounded a little too
relaxed, at times verging on the lethargic. At one point, the pace noticeably
picked up, but it seemed more of a correction than an intensification. I have
no idea why the lights were dimmed at one point and then turned back up; it was
probably a mistake, but it would be nice to think that it was a warning shot to
the serried ranks of coughers.

Bluebeard’s Castle was performed in a semi-staged version,
directed by Nick Hillel. BartÛk’s opera is a strange case, in that in
many respects it seems almost made to be performed in concert: its interiority,
as heralded by the prologue, may even work better if it compels the listener to
direct the work in his head. I am not sure that the production, based upon
projections onto a ‘motorised shape’ above the orchestra and a
simple enough design around the borders of the stage, added very much, but if
it liberated the imagination of some unimaginative souls then it will have done
some good and little harm. So far as I could tell, the designs, projections,
and lighting all worked as they should.

Woodland film rendered the opening music more than usually
PellÈas-like; that seemed to suit Salonen’s strategy too, at
this stage characterised by what one might paradoxically call a subdued teeming
of orchestral life, rendering contrast of Judit’s viewing the torture
chamber all the greater. What we saw here was rather literally representative:
some instruments of torture, followed by red for blood — though oddly,
the red seemed more redolent of socialist propaganda posters, which,
BartÛk’s politics notwithstanding, I cannot believe was the intention.
Such a colour-based approach might actually have worked better with
Schoenberg’s contemporary Die gl¸ckliche Hand. On the other
hand, visual evocation of diamonds complemented the fantasy so finely painted
by the Philharmonia’s harps and celesta. Even then, however, Michelle
DeYoung’s facial expressions, let alone her vocalism, had much more to
say than any film projection, and still more so in the subsequent case of the
flowers. DeYoung offered more than ample compensation for the previously
advertised Measha Brueggergosman; hers was a powerfully dramatic and
beautifully sung performance, equally alert to the demands of text and melodic
line. She was formidable, not in the slightest pathetic; one could readily
understand how she had her fateful way. Bluebeard’s defiant pride in the
splendours of his kingdom was far better expressed by Sir John
Tomlinson’s performance, noble yet wounded, than by turning the lights on
and showing a few clouds on the move.

I took a while to be convinced by Salonen’s reading, wondering if the
tension was sagging a little in the middle; this was certainly not a
razor-sharp Bluebard’s Castle in the manner of Boulez. And yet,
matters would become clearer, the greater strategy paying off handsomely, when
the cold menace of the increasingly modernist-sounding orchestral palette
asserted itself as Judit learned of her predecessors, likewise in the
cumulative terror leading up to the final revelation. (DeYoung was superb here
too.) The post-Wagnerian orchestral glory of the final climax put me in mind of
Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, but it was the desolation of Tomlinson
thereafter that moved most of all. As with so much of the production, the
appearance of Judit as an apparition at the back of stage did no violence to
the work, but might better have been discarded.

Mark Berry

image_description=(Gustave DorÈ, lithographie de Barbe Bleue)
product_title=Claude Debussy — PrÈlude ‡ l’aprËs-midi d’un faune; BÈla BartÛk — Piano Concerto no.3; Èla BartÛk — Bluebeard’s Castle (semi-staged)
product_by=Yefim Bronfman (piano); Judit: Michelle DeYoung; Bluebeard: Sir John Tomlinson; Juliet Stevenson (narrator). Director: Nick Hillel (director); Staging: David Edwards; Set designs: Adam Wiltshire; Lighting: David Holmes. Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Thursday 3 November 2011.
product_id=Above: Lithograph of Bluebeard by Gustave DorÈ