London Schools Symphony Orchestra

Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, Op.56a
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Judith – Andrea Meláth
Bluebeard – Mihály Kálmándi

Andrew Wincott (reciter)

London Schools Symphony Orchestra
Peter Ash

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 8 May, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This concert should have taken place on 2 May, but was cancelled (postponed is now the better word) due to problems with the Barbican’s ventilation system. For the quickly arranged second attempt, the hall was packed. Families poured in to celebrate their offspring. For this evening, at least, they, representing the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, were part of the London music scene.

Brahms’s ‘Haydn Variations’ was given a performance nimble and classical, but not dry. The theme, the ‘St Anthony Chorale’ (whether composed by Haydn or not) was not here something solemnly orchestrated by Brahms: it sounded like Haydn. Then, with the first variation, we entered recognisable Brahmsian territory. He moved adroitly, this Brahms – with all the lightness of a heavily-built man. Each variation was a distinctive dance. He knew the appropriate steps for each. The performance was confident – genial and vigorous, too. It had delicacy and strength, tautness and abandon, and was wistful and exuberant – and much joy. Each section of the orchestra had its spot-lit moment – its chance to respond to Peter Ash’s meticulous, clear beat and his lightly cajoling gestures.

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” was advertised as ‘semi-staged’ (and began with the sometimes-omitted spoken prologue). The scenes were bathed in different colours: darkening as Bluebeard and Judith entered the castle (the marital home); glowing red stage-left whenever the walls wept blood; blanketing the arena in subdued lighting as Judith surveyed those terrible closed doors and glaring with sudden brilliance when she let the light in. Last of all, as Judith joined the three previous wives, the arena went black.

From time to time, the singers turned to look at each other, dramatically.

The performance was compelling.

Andrea Meláth and Mihály Kálmándi are both Budapest trained. They sang in the opera’s language, Hungarian – that mattered. Their fine voices were admirably suited to the work – and both sang with distinction. Meláth’s light, clear, mellifluous mezzo gave us a Judith who was indeed a young bride, curious about the closed doors, aghast at the horrors revealed, yet driven to insist on knowing their full extent.

Kálmándi had a warm, rich voice that sits comfortably over both lower and higher ranges. His sounds, unforced and natural, were suitably lugubrious – with, also, the necessary stalwart attraction.

The LSSO was spellbinding. Settling into this amazing sepulchral drama gave these youngsters no trouble. They coped with the technical demands with aplomb – there are moments when the music approaches a concerto for orchestra. The young musicians responded to the dissonance and polytonality boldly and assertively. They conveyed the brooding, doom-laden atmosphere sure-footedly – the quiet foreboding and the full horror, the love and the anguish, the dark and the light, the blood.

This was my niece’s first experience of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”. “I really enjoyed that!” – she exclaimed – “it sent shivers down my back!”

What an accolade – and how deserved!

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