United Kingdom Berlioz, Liszt and Bartók: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Ildikó Komlósi (mezzo-soprano), Sir Willard White (bass), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 27.1.2015 (AS)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust – Marche hongroise
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A, S125
Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
Though the programme note did not discuss the point, this well-planned concert contained composer connections as well as Hungarian connections, for Berlioz’s music influenced Liszt, whose music in turn influenced Bartók. And so Berlioz’s march made a doubly appropriate start to the evening. Unusually for such a distinguished exponent of this composer’s music, Dutoit’s conducting here was a trifle lacklustre, but this didn’t matter greatly, for we soon moved on to better things.
Marc-André Hamelin is renowned for his prodigious technique, which was very much in evidence during his performance of Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. But there was nothing showy in his virtuosity. His was a serious, respectful approach to the music, which emerged with a quality of nobility that is not usually evident in more extrovert, showy performances. His thoughtfully expressive use of gently undulating legato in the opening section was a particular delight, as it was in the other reflective passages later on in the concerto. Thus the more brilliant episodes provided a strong sense of contrast, especially in Hamelin’s firm, concentrated yet apparently effortless delivery. Dutoit and the RPO provided excellent support, and after a performance such as this one wonders why the concerto is often regarded as vulgar or tawdry.
To lose one of the two singer protagonists engaged for a performance of Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both is a disaster. But there it was. Both the mezzo-soprano Andrea Meláth and the bass Bálint Szabó had apparently succumbed to illness, and just a couple of days before the concert Ildikó Komlósi and Sir Willard White were drafted in to replace them. Komlósi is a highly experienced Hungarian artist who has played the part of Judith in stage productions: she even sang on this occasion without the music. Willard White has taken the part of Bluebeard on stage and in concert, but he was probably wise to have his score with him, since the performance was sung in the original Hungarian.
Komlósi has a kind of booming, vibrato-laden voice that would not be suitable for some roles, but has just right quality to soar over Bartók’s complex orchestration. And for all his 68 years Willard White still has a deeply resonant bass voice. Together they created such dramatic intensity that a stage production was hardly missed. White evoked a kind of dignified sense of resignation in his interpretation, and he looked on with a sense that the inexorable workings of fate could not be avoided. Komlósi showed a sense of fear and vulnerability, but also an insatiable and ultimately fatal curiosity about what lay behind those locked doors in Bluebeard’s Castle. They were magnificently aided by an inspired Dutoit, who as he often does, secured magnificent playing from the RPO, and how much better the marvellous score sounded with the orchestra on stage rather than in a pit. Thus from initial setbacks there eventually emerged a most satisfying performance.