Bluebeards I Have Known

by Sedgwick Clark

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s three-week Hungarian Echoes “festival” of works by Haydn, Ligeti, and Bartók with the New York Philharmonic has become one of the season’s highlights. On Tuesday I heard the second program again, the one with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. To hear this emotionally devastating score played, sung, and conducted so extraordinarily well, twice in the space of four days, is good fortune on a scarcely believable level. Amazingly, these audiences seemed to realize it. Except for the old coot with a catarrh and St. Vitus’s Dance sitting in front of PK, whom she had to reprimand when he flipped open a cell phone to text, the Philharmonic’s notoriously rude audience held its collective breath for over 65 minutes on both nights until E-P lowered his baton. On the way out I ran into my old friend Mary Jane Wright, formerly in the Phil’s subscription department, who recalled past performances of Bluebeard in this hall when audience members began departing 20 minutes into the piece.

If this week’s Philharmonic audiences found Bartók’s dark essay into spiritual loneliness more engaging, no small praise is due to the emotional conviction of the soloists, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and bass Gábor Bretz. There was plenty of eye contact and visible human feeling between two people whose sole actions are disagreement on whether or not to unlock the castle’s seven ominous doors. And they both had voices to knock us for a loop—he the low notes at his first entrance, and she that powerful high C which pinned me to the back of my seat as she opened the fifth door to reveal Bluebeard’s panoramic landholdings. The sudden illumination of the house lights at that point after half an hour of various hues of darkness was heart-stopping, even the second time around. The bass, new to me, was most impressive indeed as he poured out his heart to Judith before she joins his three previous wives behind the seventh door. He clearly deserves to be singing in the States as often as his bio reveals he does in Europe. (How about it, Met?)

Truly, the only misstep of the evening was the artificiality of the recorded sound of the doors opening. The program’s first half offered a pair of nonstop delights: the early Ligeti Concert Românesc (1951), which could have been mistaken for an Enescu rhapsody, and the Haydn Symphony No. 7 (Le Midi), with delicious solo work by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and first cellist Carter Brey. Both pieces should be played often.

You’ll kick yourself—or at least you should—if you don’t catch Salonen’s third and last program on March 24, 25, or 26: Haydn’s Symphony No. 8 (Le Soir), Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds, and Bartók’s First Piano Concerto (with Olli Mustonen) and Miraculous Mandarin Suite as the roof-raising finale.

Bartók’s only opera may not have been programmed often at the Phil, but the occasions were auspicious: Kertész (1969), Kubélik (1981), Dohnányi (2006), and now Salonen. Surprisingly, Boulez never did it while music director in the Seventies, but at least he finally got around to it at Carnegie with the Chicago Symphony last season. A word about the Kubélik program: The first of his four performances occurred on Bartók’s centennial, March 25, 1981, paired with the composer’s MUSPAC. Soloists were Tatiana Troyanos and Siegmund Nimsgern, and the live recording was released on the orchestra’s own label in the first of its five ten-CD historic broadcast sets, “New York Philharmonic: The Historic Broadcasts, 1923 to 1987.”

I caught a later performance of Kubélik’s Bluebeard, not the centennial one, because Antal Doráti and the Detroit Symphony were at Carnegie Hall with a pair of all-Bartók concerts. On March 23, György Sándor played the Piano Concerto No. 3, of which he had given the premiere in 1946 with Ormandy and Philadelphia; Bluebeard’s Castle was on the second half. I remember I felt that Doráti had underplayed the massive C major tutti when Judith opens the fifth door, which perplexed me until the moment she walked through the seventh door at the end and the conductor unleashed one of the loudest, most dissonant chords I’ve ever heard. In my best Stagedoor Johnny demeanor I went backstage to tell him of my epiphany, and he said, smiling broadly, “Yes, yes, that’s the climax of the opera!” On the actual centennial, Doráti’s program was Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Violin Concerto No. 2, with Yehudi Menuhin in top form, and Concerto for Orchestra. Wow! Only in New York.

Denk Steps in for Pollini at Carnegie

Pianist Jeremy Denk will make his Carnegie Hall recital debut on Sunday afternoon, playing Ives’s “Concord” Sonata and Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the piece he played a few weeks ago that impressed me so. He’s replacing Maurizio Pollini, who has cancelled his U.S. concert tour due to illness.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

3/24 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen; Olli Mustonen, piano. Haydn: Symphony No. 8 (Le Soir). Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 1; Miraculous Mandarin Suite; Ligeti: Clocks and Clouds.

3/25 Alice Tully Hall. Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Mahler: Piano Quartet in A minor. Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1; Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 1; Bartók: Piano Quintet.

3/26 Carnegie Hall. Toronto Symphony/Peter Oundjian; Itzhak Perlman, violin. Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1. John Estacio: Frenergy. Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4.

3/27 Carnegie Hall. Jeremy Denk, piano. Ives: Sonata No. 2 (Concord). Bach: Goldberg Variations. (Note: This pianist and program replaces Maurizio Pollini, who cancelled due to illness.)

3/27 Alice Tully Hall. Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Belcea Quartet. Mozart: Quartet in B-flat, K. 589. Turnage: new work (NY premiere). Beethoven: Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130, with Grosse Fuge, Op. 133.

3/29 Carnegie Hall. American Symphony/Leon Botstein; Blair McMillen, piano; Miranda Cuckson, violin. Piston: Toccata; Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra; Symphony No. 2; Violin Concerto No. 1; Symphony No. 4.

3/30 Metropolitan Opera. Wagner: Das Rheingold. Fabio Luisi, cond.; Harmer, Blythe, Bardon, R. Croft, Siegel, Terfel, Fink, Selig König.

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