Hungarian Echoes: A Philharmonic Festival – Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts New York Philharmonic [Ligeti, Haydn & Duke Bluebeard’s Castle]

Concert Românesc
Symphony No.7 in C (Le Midi)
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – Opera in one act to a libretto by Béla Balázs

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Gábor Bretz (bass) & Richard Easton (speaker)

New York Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 19 March, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingUnder the title of “Hungarian Echoes: A Philharmonic Festival”, Esa-Pekka Salonen has put together four programs combining music by Haydn, Ligeti, and Bartók. The Austrian composer is included as honorary Hungarian due to his years of service at the court of the Esterházy family. Stylistically, however, his ‘Noon’ Symphony incorporates an unusual combination of concertante and other elements from the French and Italian Baroque, solo musicians featured, and even opera without words. The Concertmaster at times takes on the role of a vocal soloist in recitatives, arias, and duets with the principal cellist, culminating in their extensive cadenza at the end of the second movement. Glenn Dicterow and Carter Brey acquitted themselves admirably, as did flutist Robert Langevin and double bassist Eugene Levinson in extended solos. Salonen had reduced the orchestra to a string section of twenty-three players, and they played with great elegance and transparency of texture.

Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto, which opened the concert, showed off a rich and warm sound which one rarely hears from the Philharmonic in this problematic hall. The first movement in particular is reminiscent of an English idyll, with lush string unisons. Dicterow had a prominent role in this work as well and proved himself an excellent gypsy fiddler. An early work of Ligeti’s – composed in 1951 and revised in 1996 – it is firmly grounded in tonality and incorporates folk elements, including echoing Alphorns in the finale. Salonen and the NY Phil gave it a very committed, spirited performance.

Michelle DeYoung. Photograph: Christian Steiner“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” was presented in an edition published in 2007 by Peter Bartók, the composer’s son. The most important difference is the inclusion of a new English translation of the ‘Prologue’, spoken here by Richard Easton. Michelle DeYoung again sang the role of Judith just over a year after she performed it with the Chicago Symphony and Pierre Boulez at Carnegie Hall. Obviously very comfortable with the part in Hungarian, she barely glanced at the music, but subtly acted out an arresting portrayal of the young woman introduced into the nobleman’s oppressive realm. The ‘Prologue’ asks, “is it outside or within?”. DeYoung managed to convey both aspects – a realistic interaction with the Duke, and her own struggles with the issues confronting her. Vocally she characterized Judith with an expressive range from hesitant, barely sung utterances to glorious bursts of vocalism culminating in the high C at the Fifth Door.

Gábor Bretz, a Hungarian bass making his Philharmonic debut, was Bluebeard. A tall and handsome man he projected an air of dignity and cool detachment, but also hints of genuine humanity when he tried to dissuade Judith from opening the last two doors. His rich, dark bass is perfectly suited for the role. He managed to make himself heard in all but the orchestra’s loudest moments, but he also could be chillingly soft and menacing.

This concert production was enhanced by the use of spatial electronic sound-effects for the sighing of the castle, and by lighting. The initial color was red, which re-appeared any time “blood” was mentioned (there were supertitles). The armory was bathed in yellow and red, which turned gold for the jewels, and green-blue for the garden. Predictably the most spectacular effect occurred at the opening of the Fifth Door, the Duke’s kingdom. The house lights were suddenly turned on, in addition to bright white from the performing area, heightening the effect of the powerful C major chord. Salonen proved himself a great colorist, too. He characterised each section of the work in much detail, but never lost the underlying tension, all with impeccable dramatic timing. From the softest, hushed pianissimos to full-bodied, balanced tuttis, the New York Philharmonic has rarely sounded better.

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