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Schubert: Symphony in B minor, D.759, “Unfinished” (1822), Bartók: A kékszakállú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), Opera in One Act, Op. 11 (1911-18): Anne Sofie von Otter, Mezzo-soprano, Matthias Goerne, Baritone, New York Philharmonic, Christoph von Dohnányi, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 9-11.3.2006 (BH)

Having recovered from a bout of bronchitis that removed him from the podium last weekend, Christoph von Dohnányi returned with a vengeance in an expertly shaped program of two contrasting works. Schubert’s Eighth Symphony was a marvel of grace and elegance, with some of the nicest quiet moments in recent weeks. The ubiquitous first movement theme usually hogs all the attention, especially here as delivered by Carter Brey and his silken cello section, and it might be easy to overlook Schubert’s counterpoint, where the real glory lies. Von Dohnányi carefully molded each phrase, then polished and set it in place, helped by some magnificent playing. Granite-solid winds and brass, plush strings and the grace notes of timpani were balanced with the ease of a master, and at intermission the prolonged audience cheering brought out von Dohnányi three times – not bad for just the first half of the program.

Several small but crucial staging decisions only enhanced the impact of the Bartók. With Dohnányi in the center, Anne Sofie von Otter stood just to his left and Matthias Goerne on the right, singing in the same room but rarely singing to each other. Draped in blood-red velvet, von Otter cut a striking figure as the tremulous, curious Judith who implores Bluebeard to pay attention to her, love her, and give her the keys to his castle’s seven locked doors. Her voice seemed ideal, particularly in several moments when she shrieks, “Give me the other keys!” With a combination of impetuousness and sexual fever, she often sang with eyes wide open, staring straight out into the audience. Goerne, on the other hand, was a model of creepiness, dressed in black and gray, his face streaked with a sparse goatee, often looking down or gazing over at her with a festering, crazed stare. The slight cloaked quality of his instrument only added to the gnawing feeling that he was hiding something – a man not able to adequately express his grisly desires.

This introversion was made all the more powerful by the orchestral explosions behind him. Bartók’s lavish forces and iridescent colors are vividly emotive and only heighten the tension, with unique tone colors as each of the doors is opened. The pivotal fifth door, when “all of Bluebeard’s domain” is revealed, drew some absolutely fearsome sounds, and I still replay that twittering, softly pulsating chord that underscores the “lake of tears” behind the sixth, as a cloud of sadness slowly begins to engulf everyone onstage. One of the many beauties of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is that its horror and psychological drama are left a bit mysterious. Judith arrives filled with curiosity, but as the doors open, it is suggested that she may already know their secrets, even as she is being drawn inexorably toward her fate.

If the singers were occasionally overwhelmed by the sonic mass, this was a small matter and probably has more to do with Bartók’s extravagant demands for a huge ensemble. Four times, whooping audience members brought out von Dohnányi, von Otter and Goerne, who then turned to applaud the members of the orchestra. One doesn’t often hear this score done live, and in this brilliant reading the Philharmonic set the bar very high for the rest of the season.

Bruce Hodges




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)