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S & H Opera/Concert Review

Review 1: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle & Beethoven Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä, Barbican Hall, February 22nd, 2004 (CC)


Osmo Vänskä became Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra in September 2003. He is the latest in a distinguished line that includes Ormandy, Mitropoulos and Dorati. With the orchestra, Vänskä plans a complete Beethoven cycle on BIS, so the Fourth Symphony we heard on this occasion was presumably much more of a ‘warm-up’ piece.

A hands-on conductor (his characteristic gesture being the ‘Vänskä crouch’ at sudden dynamic drops), control was very much in evidence. He actually counted the rests at the end of the first movement introduction (few do) and he had obviously thought long and hard about orchestral balance. But there was nothing really new here – in fact the predominant impression was of a real ‘Middle-of–the-Road’ reading. Playing was generally excellent (the high E flat entry of the horns in the slow movement spot-on, for example) yet, until the last movement, the spirit was lacking. The Allegro vivace third movement was under-tempo, precluding the element of dance and although the woodwind was well-balanced in the Trio, the violins’ descending scales lacked approachability and wit. The finale came closest to a convincing realisation. The hand of Haydn was close here, and excitement made its belated arrival, antiphonally placed violins making their presence felt.

I would imagine most of the audience, however, had come for the Bartók. The soloists in this instance were strong ones. Ildiko Komlosi was a dark-hued Judith while Michele Kalmandi made for a commanding Bluebeard (they have actually appeared together on disc, too, in Hungaroton’s recording of Respighi’s ‘mystery play’ Maria Egiziaca on Hungaroton HCD31118; Kalmandi has recorded Bluebeard with the Baden State Orchestra under Günter Neuhold on Bella Musica BM-CD319052). Kalmandi’s focussed baritone and excellent diction made for a compelling portrayal and complemented Komlosi’s lush yet clear tone perfectly. Komlosi’s most appealing attribute is probably her low register, which retains a touch of hardness just to give it an extra edge of depth. She is capable of great lyricism (as when she denies daylight for Bluebeard’s darkness) and also of fully realising Bartók’s wide leaps from one register into another. Her attack was spot-on – if there is any real criticism of her to be made it is that she could have shrieked more at the opening of the fifth door.

Kalmandi’s assumption of Bluebeard was obviously borne of long association with this role. How else could he have imbued the Lake of Tears scene with such meaning? He could be imposing when required (which is quite often), yet tender, too. Only occasionally did an unwanted literalism creep in (just prior to the Lake of Tears).

Vänskä’s accompaniment was in many ways textbook in his super-glued attendance to his soloists and his care with the detail of Bartók’s masterpiece, often realising the awe-inspiring orchestration masterfully. Yet the end was not as crushing as it can be precisely because Vänskä had not built the piece as a continuity with the end in sight from the very beginning. A pity, as there was much to admire along the way.

Arnold Whittall’s programme notes for Bluebeard, by the way, were an absolute model of their kind. Whittall brings his wealth of knowledge to bear on this piece whilst not blinding his readers. If only all notes were like this.

Colin Clarke

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