Arts: Classical: Look but don't touch
BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE LPO / HAITINK RFH, SBC, LONDON
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Tuesday 02 February 1999
And yet, and yet. This is a momentous work, a work of consequence and audacity whose lofty inspirations have resonated across the ages to thrill and surprise us. But there was no surprise, no heat of inspiration about Haitink's reading. For the first three movements at least, we were comfortably ensconced in that all-purpose drawing room of 18th-century manners, there to admire but not to touch or be touched. Every detail was exquisitely attended, but the human as opposed to the musical impulses were never truly felt.Until that great finale where at last some blood started pumping. Inner woodwind parts might still have been more strongly projected, leading lines more ardently sung, but Mozart was at last present in the hall.
Bartok was there too, but willing us to be somewhere else, somewhere deep in our subconscious. The spoken Prologue to his operatic masterpiece Bluebeard's Castle invites us to "listen in silence". It's a revealing phrase in as much as this remarkable work so excites the imagination that any aspect of presentation - be it in the theatre or concert hall - is bound to distract. This is theatre of the mind and soul and, as such, you want to lose yourself in it. Haitink and his orchestra did everything they could to assist, eliminating the light of the natural world, illuminating the darkness within.
Bartok's astounding orchestral imagery was beautifully realised. Here and there - on the threshold of the "lake of tears", for instance - the effect was perhaps a shade over-literal, drawing one's attention to how Bartok had achieved the sounds, not why. But then again there was a palpable sense of us all sharing Judith's stunned silence as Bluebeard's kingdom is revealed to her in a welter of brassy, organ-buttressed C major. Judith was the excellent German mezzo Petra Lang, indomitable in the sepulchral lower registers of the voice, but with a freedom and radiance at the top to at least suggest the unconditional love that she could not bring herself to give.
Her Bluebeard, Kolos Kovats, rightly subordinated menace to the role's ineffable sadness. The idea that at the end of life's long day's journey we are essentially alone, is more movingly conveyed here than in any other piece I know. The rest is indeed silence.
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