The Hungarian content of this concert by the Royal Philharmonic under their artistic director and principal conductor Charles Dutoit would have been truly authentic if the two singers in Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle had been present. Sadly, Bálint Szabó and Andrea Meláth pulled out due to illness and were replaced by bass Willard White and Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi.
Both singers are seasoned interpreters of Bartók’s gothic horror masterpiece, but White still felt the need to keep his score in hand. His imperfect Magyar accounted for his pedestrian spoken prologue in English. Initially subdued, White played Bluebeard as a man haunted by his secrets and capacity for cruelty. For a while he seemed to give up the keys to the locked doors with remarkable complaisance. But by the fifth door – which opens onto his vast demesne – there was no doubt about the steeliness and menace of his controlling grip on events. Singing without a score, Ildikó Komlósi was a commanding rather than naïve Judith – at least until the opening of that fifth door. From then on, her mounting terror at the realisation of the truth behind the seventh and final door was revealed with convincing pathos.
Dutoit had clearly spent time considering the complexities of this opera. His approach was to balance the elements of psychological expressionist drama and virtuosic orchestral brilliance. Dutoit’s pacing was finely calibrated to ratchet up the tension, while he elicited playing of the highest quality from the RPO. The resounding yet oppressive chords of the fifth door were topped by the Royal Festival Hall’s gloriously renovated organ, and by magisterial trumpet and trombone calls from the choir stalls. In contrast, the lake of tears behind the sixth door sounded astringently bitter on harp and celesta. The final scene in which Judith joins Bluebeard’s three previous wives behind the seventh door was a deeply affecting ending thanks to superb singing and sympathetic orchestral accompaniment.
The first half of the concert was taken up with two other ‘Hungarian’ works. Berlioz’ Hungarian March from The Damnation of Faust is a picture postcard view of the Hungarian plains, although it also brilliantly evokes the brass rhythms of marching military bands. Dutoit’s version was a brisk, no-nonsense affair. Indeed, he performed it so briskly – even perfunctorily – that he didn’t even bother to remain on stage to receive applause at the end.
Although its composer was born in the Kingdom of Hungary, there is nothing particularly ‘Hungarian’ about Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major. Nevertheless, it does have a punchy appeal. Soloist Marc-André Hamelin was totally at ease with the concerto’s technical demands, so much so that there was a certain ennui about his delivery. Things picked up in the central Allegro, with its lively rhythms and bounding romps up and down the keyboard. There was some fine playing from the RPO’s woodwind section, and principal cellist Tim Gill was deservedly singled out by Dutoit for his lyrical playing.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.