Monday 8 November 2021

From warm good humour to gripping drama: Haydn and Bartok from London Philharmonic Orchestra and Edward Gardner

Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle - Ildikó Komlósi, Edward Gardner, John Relyea, London Philharmonic Orchestra (Photo Mark Allan)
Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle - Ildikó Komlósi, Edward Gardner, John Relyea, London Philharmonic Orchestra (Photo Mark Allan)

Haydn Symphony No. 90, Bartok Bluebeard's Castle; Ildikó Komlósi, John Relyea, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner; Royal Festival Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 November 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
From the good humour of Haydn's symphony written for Paris to the dark intensity of Bartok's complex vision

The speaker in Béla Balázs's prologue to Béla Bartok's opera Bluebeard's Castle questions whether what we are seeing happens on stage before our eyes or behind our eyelids, in our imagination. There has been a tendency for recent small-scale productions of the opera in London to reinvent the piece dramatically, but there is a lot to be said for simply replying on Bartok, Balázs and our imagination, especially when presented with the full panoply of the London Philharmonic Orchestra filling the stage. Cast-wise, Bluebeard's Castle might seem the perfect pandemic opera, but Bartok's orchestration is anything but.

On Saturday 6 November 2021, Edward Gardner conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in a programme which paired Haydn's Symphony No. 90 with Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára), with Ildikó Komlósi and John Relyea. It was thus an evening of contrasts, from openness and blazing sunlight to darkness and secrets, from compact orchestral forces to large scale sonic opulence.

Except, of course, Haydn's Symphony No. 90 is, in its way, opulent. He was writing to commission for Paris in 1788, and the symphony uses horns, trumpets and timpani alongside woodwind and strings, and is quite a large-scale piece. Yes, it is sunny and open, but there is imaginative complexity too in Haydn's deft handling of key relationships, along with some showpiece solos for individual players. Gardner used forces which were relatively large (ten first violins and ten second violins), but there was still a lightness of touch here and a crisp deftness in the playing, and whilst he might not be aiming for strictly HIP style, this was a world away from the rich opulent type performance you might have heard in a symphony orchestra a generation or two ago. We began with a highly serious slow introduction, in which more characterful lightness kept breaking in until the ebullience of the main Allegro, which was full of good humour yet also a sense of grandeur of scale. In the Andante the performers combined stylish elegance with a relish for the intriguing details of Haydn's music, and the minuet was a vigorously robust dance, with fine oboe solo in the trio. The finale was fast and fizzing with tight rhythms, and here Haydn's good humour erupted into real comedy as the work ended with two false endings.

It is worthwhile bearing in mind that Bluebeard's Castle is relatively early work, though it was premiered in 1918 Bartok wrote it in 1911. It is highly expressionist and symbolist, with a sound world still affected by the influence of Debussy's music (Bartok's friend Kodaly brought the French composer's scores back from Paris in 1907) alongside the growing influence of Hungarian folksong (from 1908, Bartok and Kodaly started to travel researching folk melodies). Any performance of the opera invites us to wonder who these characters are and what the opening of the doors actually means. The Hungarian conductor  István Kertész believed that Bluebeard was Bartok himself, with the opera detailing his personal suffering as Judith progressively invades the secrets of his inner soul, thus effectively turning the conventional symbolism of the opera on its head. Each listener must make their own decision. 

We began with the spoken prologue (given in Hungarian by an uncredited speaker) over the sound system, with Gardner and the orchestra creeping eerily in. Throughout the performance Gardner relished the sophisticated potential of Bartok's orchestration, the rich palette of detailed colours, the intricacies of textures. As each door was opened, the orchestra's role was not simply descriptive, in Gardner's hands it became a third character in the psychodrama.

Komlósi was a mature Judith, not girlish but deferential, yet still determined and endlessly questioning, her head down but asking those awkward questions. And of course, constantly discovering the blood that lies behind each of the visions in the seven doors. As the opera progressed we could feel Judith's progression from curiosity, to determination to sheer bleakness at the end when all revealed, she might be cowed by Bluebeard's stiff authority, but Komlósi was always prepared to question. Similarly, Relyea's Bluebeard started out profoundly authoritarian and military in bearing, but gradually unbended until the extent of his feeling became apparent as he realised that he was losing her. Along the way there were some terrifically intense scenes between the two, and the end was devastating with the combination of Komlósi's implacability as Judith and Relyea bringing out Bluebeard's deep feeling of loss. Neither singer indulged in extreme histrionics, yet created a sense of gripping tension between the two characters, we know what is going to happen yet they managed to have us on the edge of our seats.

Gardner and the orchestra brought out the sheer seductiveness of Bartok's score, the moments such as the garden, when all is elaborate beauty and of course the majesty of glorious climax, yet each time the progress of the more disturbing elements was insidious. 

This was a thrillingly gripping performance, the two singers in total command and singing without scores, responding to each other and creating real tension, which was mirrored, echoed and commented upon by the orchestra. 

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