Minnesota Orchestra/Vänskä – 22 February

Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Ildiko Komlosi (Judith)
Michele Kalmandi (Bluebeard)

Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 February, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

101 years old, the Minnesota Orchestra has spent a quiet but secure existence in the top league of American orchestras, under a succession of major conductors – notably Dimitri Mitropoulos, Antál Dorati and, throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (whose appearances in the UK are as prized as they are infrequent). The current European tour brings a first opportunity to hear the Minnesota Orchestra with Osmo Vänskä, in his first year as Music Director. A familiar figure to UK audiences through his years at the helm of the BBC Scottish Symphony, not to mention numerous recordings with the Lahti Symphony, his rapport with the orchestra was evident throughout this unlikely but intriguing and ultimately rewarding pairing of works.

Certainly the timbral qualities of this ensemble – trenchantly articulated strings, French-sounding woodwind (especially the veiled bassoon tone) and vivid but never overpowering brass – were well suited to Vänskä’s thoughtful and involving conception of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Bartók’s solitary opera is a brooding examination of communication, ostensibly between the sexes, and the pitfalls of false expectation therein. It is also (Powell and Pressburger’s extraordinary – and extraordinarily little-known! – film version excepted) an opera resistant to even the most symbolically-conceived staging, making concert performance an ideal option. As long, that is, as the two vocalists are able to sustain the demanding roles against the sizeable orchestra.

Such was almost the case here. Not that Michele Kalmandi was unequal to the part of Bluebeard, but his introspective approach, ideally poised in the initial monologues and fatalistic commentaries between the opening of the last two doors, lacked a sense of emotion being held ominously in check. Without this, the impassioned outbursts at the climactic unlocking of the fifth door lacked fervour, and the delivering of Judith to her unwitting fate behind the seventh door felt just a trifle matter of fact. Such reticence was the more evident given Ildiko Komlosi’s Judith – a role she has made her own in recent years, and an interpretation animated yet pertinent to one who all but intuits the silencing of her individuality by the time the seventh door is unlocked. Such crucial (musically and dramatically) passages as the folksy inflection of her response to Bluebeard’s domain, and numbed uncertainty on contemplating the lake of tears, were conveyed with a potent mixture of expressive vibrancy and vocal finesse. There can be few singers so in accord with the role today.

At around 57 minutes, Vänskä directed a ’median-length’ account of the opera – moving lithely through the scene-setting stages (no undue portentousness here), while comfortably taking in the seismic accumulation of power after its midpoint. Particularly impressive was his delineation of detail over the first four doors, pointing up motivic resemblance within the contrasts of tone- colour and texture. The opera emerged with an indissoluble unity from out of its many impressive parts, confirming Bartók as a master in a medium to which he sadly never returned.

Perhaps it was the inward ambiguity of this music that suggested it as a complement to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony? At any rate, this still-misunderstood masterpiece emerged as a bigger and more varied statement than is suggested by either its outward context or the ’hemming-in’ tendency of many authentically-oriented performances, although Vänskä did choose to have antiphonal violins, which is ideal for this music of course. The tonal vagaries of the introduction were convincingly related to the main part of the first movement, with the scherzo paced so that its winsome trio could proceed at exactly the same tempo. Even more impressive were the slow movement, with a deadpan humour brought to its many harmonic and rhythmic puns, and the finale – confirming it as less a homage to Haydn than an acknowledgement of shared musical ground between one-time master and pupil. Good news that Vänskä is to record the Beethoven symphonies in Minnesota for BIS. On the evidence of this and several other fine Beethoven performances Vänskä has given in London during recent years, this should be one cycle worth waiting for.

Ending with the Bartók would have been fine in itself, but Vänskä has never skimped on encores, and treated us to the very different pairing of Steve Heitzeg’s Wounded Fields – a ’9/11’ tribute the more affecting for its concision – and a cheery Serenata by Moritz Moszkowski, which was on the orchestra’s first-ever programme in 1903. An arrangement of a Finnish hymn by the conductor himself was also to hand had the applause warranted it – but no matter: Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra had done more than enough to confirm their partnership as a productive and potentially inspiring one. Hopefully a return visit to London will not be long in coming.

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