In Bluebeard’s Castle – Edward Gardner conducts the London Philharmonic in Haydn and Bartók, with Ildikó Komlósi & John Relyea

Symphony No.90 in C

Bluebeard’s Castle, Sz.48 – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Bélá Balázs, after the story La Barbe bleue by Charles Perrault [sung in Hungarian, with English surtitles]

Judith – Ildikó Komlósi
Duke Bluebeard – John Relyea

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 6 November, 2021
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The only obvious connection between the two works in this LPO programme is that they were both composed in Hungary. Edward Gardner, in his first season as the London Philharmonic’s new Principal Conductor, was totally at ease with the trumpet-and-drums, C-major swagger of Haydn’s Symphony No.90. This was a big, athletic reading, strong on detail and, apart from sparing use of string vibrato, not obsessed with period style. The string ensemble, though – with six double-basses on the left behind the first violins, cellos in the middle – was faultless, with shadings of volume and colour bringing the woodwind’s many eloquent solos in the limelight. Rather like the opening of the Bartók opera, Haydn’s Adagio opener was stern and objective, and Gardner emphasised the slow movement’s major-minor contrasts in a way prescient of Beethoven. The Finale’s false endings became a slightly laboured joke, but Gardner’s and the LPO’s vivacity was irresistible.

There followed a magnificent outing for Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, the LPO at full strength, plus an additional eight-strong brass band bulking up the full organ for the flood of sound at the opening of the castle’s fifth door, impressive, and, considering the band’s five-minute slot, luxurious. Both Ildikó Komlósi and John Relyea have form in this strange opera/concerto for orchestra hybrid, and their impassive, stand-and-deliver performances left plenty of space for the audience to draw its own conclusions about solitary Bluebeard, the secrets concealed behind the castle’s seven doors, and the mounting panic of Judith, his fourth wife, as she digs herself ever deeper towards the truth. Komlósi’s rich mezzo expressed the erosion of Judith’s assumptions as she stumbles between nagging positivism, moments of seductive tenderness and underlying fear with dismaying precision. John Relyea portrayal of Bluebeard’s impenetrable self-protection was ink-black, which made his lyrical outpouring of love for his current and three former wives all the more radiant. With both singers standing either side of Gardner, it succinctly made the point how the two characters are separated by the music. Gardner drew a hard, brightly coloured sound from the LPO for the first five doors, then, as Bluebeard’s role took over, switched to something more impressionist and ambiguous to return the castle to its status quo.

By chance, this concert performance came on the same day as the opening of a new staging from Theatre of Sound (at Stone Nest in central London) of Bluebeard’s Castle by Daisy Evans, with Bartók’s mighty score brilliantly reduced for six players by Stephen Higgins. It dealt with dementia, and its effect was devastating, all down to outstanding performances from Susan Bullock and Gerald Finley. The sight of them at their curtain-call, processing what they had just achieved, will haunt me for some time.

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