United Kingdom Janáček and Bartók: Michelle DeYoung (soprano), Gábor Bretz (bass), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner, (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham 2.7.2014.
Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (sung in Hungarian)
With a man steeped in musical theatre at the helm in CBSO Principal Guest Conductor Edward Gardner and a mouth-watering programme of two early twentieth century masterworks in Janáček’s radiant Sinfonietta and Bartók’s brooding Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the CBSO’s 2013/14 Symphony Hall season could hardly have reached a more dramatic conclusion than it did on 2nd July.
It has always struck me as remarkable that the fanfares that open Janáček’s effervescent Sinfonietta started life as the music for a gymnastics festival (it must have been some sporting occasion!). Yet the greater clue to what was in the composer’s mind as the Sinfonietta evolved into its existing form lie in the titles that he subsequently gave to each of the five movements in what became his personal homage to the Czech armed forces and the growing significance of the city of Brno as Czechoslovakia flexed its muscles as a state in the immediate years following its independence.
Those titles of Fanfares, The Castle, The Queen’s Monastery, The Street and The Town Hall make perfect musical sense when brought to bear on the otherwise seemingly abstract nature of the music in a work that in the right hands never fails to thrill, move and fascinate in equal measure.
And that capacity to thrill was certainly evident in Symphony Hall as Edward Gardner and the CBSO gave full rein to the celebratory majesty of Janáček’s music.
With the glorious sounds of the additional brass players extending across the width of the organ gallery in Symphony Hall and giving the performance an added sense of spatial grandeur, Edward Gardner extracted every ounce of drama and colour from the extreme instrumental ranges and idiosyncratic textures of Janáček’s equally colourful orchestration in a performance that not only succeeded in emphasising the pictorial sub-text of the music but also saw the CBSO and its soloists revel in a reading of impressive contrasts and perfectly measured pacing.
It was a performance that left the audience eager for more with the reward coming in the form of a viscerally powerful second half performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.
Edward Gardner’s grasp of the opportunities for cranking up the tension of Bartók’s music were evident from the opening bars as the first vision of the castle came mysteriously into view against the ominous tones of the narrated introduction.
‘His ability to draw the listener into the dark recesses of the music and the portrayal of the destructive frailties of the human mind derived by librettist Bela Balazs from Maeterlinck’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue was brought about through a gradual, entirely compelling yet at the same time almost imperceptible control of the deeply engrained psychological drama within both story and music, whilst the increasing sense of claustrophobia as the performance progressed proved to be masterful in its control of the shape of the music revolving, as it does, around the pivotal opening of the fifth door.
The magnificent vista over Bluebeard’s kingdom revealed by the opening of that fifth door was portrayed with breathtaking power by the orchestra and additional brass, whose antiphonal placing behind the stalls lent the musical picture an added sense of magnificence.
Colorado born soprano Michelle DeYoung emerged as an entirely convincing Judit, with the huge dynamic range of her voice capturing every nuance of the musical drama, at the same time finding the human frailty, initial wonder and the ultimate transformation of that wonder to escalating horror at the depths of Bluebeard’s inner darkness with a vivid sense of atmosphere and presence.
If there was a mere hint of disappointment, it was the emotionally detached stage presence of Hungarian bass Gábor Bretz. Although overpowered by the orchestra in the lowest register of his voice on a couple of occasions, Bretz’s darkly honed delivery of Bluebeard’s ominously potent vocal line, allied with the clarity of his native diction was impressive, yet the lack of drama and facial expression proved strangely at odds with Michelle DeYoung, whose theatrical presence heightened every emotion for the listener as one lived through every fleeting emotion of her troubled journey.
It was an element that was perhaps exaggerated all the more for having seen John Tomlinson sing Bluebeard in a memorably dramatic, semi-staged performance in Symphony Hall with the Philharmonia and Esa Pekka Salonen a couple of years ago, but was an otherwise minor blot on a powerfully gripping account of Bartók’s one act masterpiece.
With the orchestra sounding in fine fettle ahead of its annual outing to the BBC Proms where it will perform Britten’s War Requiem followed by appearances at the Lucerne Festival, the impending announcement of Andris Nelsons’ successor as Chief Conductor promises to make the twelve months ahead another fascinating chapter in the history of the CBSO.