Chicago Symphony/Boulez in New York (1) – Ravel, Dalbavie & Bartók

Le tombeau de Couperin
Flute Concerto
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – Opera in one act to a libretto by Béla Balázs

Mathieu Dufour (flute)

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano) & Falk Struckmann (baritone)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 30 January, 2010
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Pierre BoulezAt the beginning of this year, flutist Mathieu Dufour created a bit of stir when he abruptly left the Los Angeles Philharmonic in mid-season to return to Chicago. Although the California orchestra issued a press release last September announcing his appointment as Principal Flute, he claimed that he had been on leave from the Chicago orchestra when he joined the Philharmonic on a one-year trial basis. Facing shoulder surgery in February and for personal reasons, he subsequently decided to leave Los Angeles early and return to Chicago, where he is listed on the roster as the orchestra’s Principal Flute. A statement appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times that he made the move because the Philharmonic has “no tradition there – no tradition of sound and no tradition of working together as a dedicated ensemble.” However, in a letter to the California musicians, Dufour later claimed that he had been “grossly misquoted,” and that he “never said or thought any negative things about the LA Phil, in fact I feel quite the opposite.”

What is undeniable though is that when it comes to sound, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the premiere ensembles anywhere. Marc-André Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto (2006) places great emphasis on color, interweaving solo lines with the orchestral texture rather than pitting one against the other; Pierre Boulez and the CSO couldn’t have been more sympathetic and sensitive partners. Beginning and ending with fast sections, the one-movement work nevertheless provides ample opportunity for soloists to display their virtuosity, starting with the rapid opening arpeggios. Dufour easily mastered all technical challenges, as well as producing a warm and rich sound which easily projected. Beyond a brilliant display of skill, he moreover played with sensitivity, style, and an obvious commitment to the piece.

In Le tombeau de Couperin, which had opened the program, Boulez similarly elicited extremely refined playing, a warm string sound, yet transparent overall, and with chamber-like intimacy. Woodwind blend and intonation were impeccable, oboist Eugene Izotov’s solo in the ‘Menuet’ was exquisite, and the brass displayed an easy virtuosity in the brisk, concluding ‘Rigaudon’.

Weightier fare followed after the interval, Bartók’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”, without its spoken ‘Prologue’. In contrast to the airy and ephemeral first half, deepest gloom seemed to descend into the hall from the very beginning. Supertitles in English were provided, which Boulez deems essential to understand the piece. Michelle DeYoung as Judith was highly expressive in her body language as well as delivering fitting vocal characterization. Her powerful mezzo-soprano soared over all but the most violent orchestral outbursts, while she could also express moments of tenderness or wonderment, such as when she opens Door 3, the Treasure Chamber.

Falk Struckmann may lack the dark bottom range of László Polgár, who is famously associated with the role of Bluebeard; however, since he is a baritone, rather than a bass, he makes up for it with a ringing top register. Although physically more reserved than DeYoung, he nevertheless gave a highly effective, vocally dramatic performance.

The main credit of the evening must go to the conductor though, in whose hands Bartók’s tale unfolded seamlessly, carrying a sinister undercurrent throughout. Almost 85 now, Boulez has a finely honed theatrical sense, which had him engaged with the music to an extent which is not always obvious in more abstract repertoire. No need here for staging this work, he and the Chicago Symphony created vivid tonal images from Bartók’s score. An extraordinary evening.

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