Editorial Board

London Editor:
(London UK)
Melanie Eskenazi

Regional Editor:
(UK regions and Worldwide)
Bill Kenny

Bill Kenny

Music Web Webmaster:

Len Mullenger


Classical Music Web Logs

Search Site With Google 

WWW MusicWeb

MusicWeb is a subscription-free site
Clicking  Google adverts on our pages helps us  keep it that way

Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 49, Bach, orch. Webern, Ades, Bartok:   Charlotte Hellekant, mezzo-soprano, Falk Struckmann, bass Philharmonia Orchestra. (Conductor, Christoph von Dohnanyi),. Royal Albert Hall, 20.8. 2007  (GD)


Webern made this orchestrated transcription of the ‘Ricercar’ from Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’ between 1934 and 1935. It is certainly not a ‘straight’ orchestration, but rather a mature essay in ‘Klangfarbenmelodie’, a technique also used in Webern’s own twelve-tone works by which the structure of a work is clarified through constant changes in tone colour, relating to the particular and the whole. As with some other works from the ‘Second Viennese School’ I have heard recently conducted by Dohnanyi, there was a general lack of textural contrast, and a tendency towards a kind of homogeneity. I did not much notice the ‘poco rubato’ in the chromatic middle section. Although the Philharmonia played well, especially in the many taxing woodwind and brass sections, I felt an overall need for greater tonal and instrumental contrast implicit in Webern’s meticulous score.

Thomas Ades’s ‘Powder Her Face’, as a chamber opera in three acts received its first performances at the Cheltenham Festival, and at the Almeida Theatre in Islington in July of 1995. It caused quite a stir at the time, dealing as it does with  the intimate erotic life of a minor aristocratic (by marriage) woman: Margaret Wigham, later Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, who actually died in a nursing home in Pimlico in 1993, leaving quite explicit memoirs of her unconventional and mildly decadent life. Ades’s opera also quite explicitly deals with fellatio among other sexual ‘aberrations’- the fellatio aspect became so contentious for a while that some broadcasters/announcers refused to have anything to do with it if it meant they would have to mention the beastly word!

Tonight the half-full Albert Hall and its remaining audience heard the London premiere of the  orchestral suite Ades has recently transcribed from the opera; Overture; Waltz; and Finale. Ades has very skilfully transcribed selected instrumental scenes for a much larger orchestra than the original chamber orchestra. The orchestration here is brilliant, especially in its parodistic deployment of various dance rhythms, all subtended by a tone of decadence in the Kurt Weill style. One writer has even compared the piece to Berg’s Orchestral Suite from Lulu, but charming as the Ades piece is, it is hardly in that class of composition.

Dohnanyi, who has conducted several of Ades’s orchestral scores, conducted a highly idiomatic performance, the rhythmically inflected dance sequences coming over with an amusing sense of panache. Here and there I felt the ensemble (strings with winds) could have been a bit more co-ordinated, but this didn’t seriously detract from the general parody and sense of fun the piece exudes.

I couldn’t imagine anything so contrasting, so other, from the Ades score than the concluding work; Bartok’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ in concert form. One of the origins of the myth, which Bartok, with his friend (librettist) Bela Balazs, turned into a modern opera, is buried in the often obscure myth and folklore of Eastern Europe (in the case of Bartok’s Bluebeard) the vast and wild Carpathian Mountain range stretching through parts of Hungary and Romania. Indeed this terrain (also including Transylvania) is characterized by the kind of  desolate gothic castles identified with Bluebeard’s Castle. Bartok, and Balazs were familiar with this terrain and one is initially struck by the way that Bartok invokes this vast desolate landscape in his utterly original soundscape.

Although there are touches of Debussy in the score (Bartok was familiar with ‘Pelléas et Mélisande) Bartok recasts them into a totally new (Hungarian) sounding orchestral texture. Balazs had been hugely influenced by the symbolist literature of Maurice Maeterlinck (the author of ‘Pelléas’), and from Maeterlinck he developed the notion of the impossibility of a unifying love between man and woman. And in many ways Bluebeard is a pretty grim study of this gender dilemma. In modern psychoanalytic terms the opera seems to prove the claim that ‘love’ is ‘giving something you don’t possess to someone who doesn’t exist’. And as the opera unfolds with emphatic, repetitive vows of love between the two protagonists, Bluebeard and Judith, the more distant from each other they become, the more the existence of the other is isolated from them both …realized trenchantly by Bartok with the biting semitone discords which punctuate their alienation from each other, especially poignant at the fifth and sixth doors where Bluebeards whole castle, whole existence, is polluted with blood,  his streams and lakes of water are really tears, but also polluted with blood.

Balazs and Bartok emphasise that this opera is emphatically dissociated from any kind of realism: Bluebeard and Judith are more symbolic figures, archetypes. In this sense the castle itself (whose walls Judith finds are dripping in blood upon her arrival) more represents Bluebeard’s desolate and obscure self. Judith relentlessly demands the keys to unlock the doors of his consciousness/ unconsciousness, or ‘soul’ in more traditional terms. Although these characters are not fleshed-out subjects in the more conventional sense they do represent quite complex psychologies: Bluebeard is a kind of alienated psychopath with sadistic tendencies (how fascinated he is by Judith’s horror at  seeing his torture chamber, First door), who, however needs love however much he himself knows it to be unobtainable: Judith can be seen a neurotic par excellence, who frantically wants to know, reveal, uncover, not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. The more that is revealed to her about Bluebeard, the more doors she opens, the more alienated she is from him and herself. From Judith’s perspective I am always reminded of Nietzsche’s aphorism against peering too deeply into the eyes of the monster lest you become one.

I am pleased to report that this complex opera was for the most part splendidly realised by conductor and orchestra. The vocal contributions from Struckmann (Bluebeard), and Hellekant (Judith) really worked. I can imagine that they would have worked better in the opera house with more space for the dramatic realization of their tragedy, but some of this dramatic intensity did come over in the right way. Swedish mezzo Charlotte Hellekant has obviously studied the part well (vocally and psychologically) - she absolutely evoked the relentless, manic nature of Judith’s repetitive demands to open all seven doors. Her Hungarian, as far as I could discern, from the libretto, was clearly delineated, although some have argued that only a Hungarian can articulate Bartok’s vocal metre. One only has to listen to older recordings by the likes of Olga Szonyi as Judith to concede that there is some truth in this argument; Hungarian, like Finnish, is one of the most distinct  European languages. The German bass Falk Struckmann complemented Hellekant most eloquently.  He answers her insistent questions, demands, in a way that never really relates to her, when he repeatedly responds to her horror at her own perceptions of his power, cruelty, with ‘ are you frightened’?, ‘are you afraid’? Struckmann delivered these lines as though he were really talking to himself, evading her and satisfying his mildly sadistic desire. When Bluebeard does try to evade her demands by asking for a kiss, it is as though he is addressing someone else, maybe the memory of one of his other dead or un- dead wives? Struckmann delineated all this ambiguity and at times smug insularity with great vocal skill and the right amount of vocal/ dramatic/evasive gesture. Again, as a German, his Hungarian seemed very clear indeed, but an expert in Hungarian vocal delivery may disagree.

Both soloists seemed to excel at the dramatic/musical climax of the opera; the opening of the fifth door where Bluebeard reveals to Judith his vast land, which encompass mountain-ranges. Hellekant’s ecstatic high C response at full vocal throttle cut through Bartok’s ‘tutti’ fff full orchestra in resounding triads doubled by organ, without a hint of vocal strain. Similarly Struckmann maintained a magnificent (if suitably detached) vocal line throughout this climatic passage.

Dohnanyi and the orchestra accompanied the drama (if accompanying is the right term, the orchestra playing such a defining role) most sensitively with a keen ear for the work’s complex spectrum of dramatic contrasts, amazingly condensed into a one hour duration but encompassing vast dramatic, psychological themes. The opening in f sharp minor was delivered with all the mystery and desolation conjured up by Bartok’s haunting soundscape,  Dohnanyi sustaining a telling but intense pp at Judith’s tentative entry into and initial exploration of the castle’s strange atmosphere. The Philharmonia played the great fifth door climax as powerfully as I have ever heard, Dohnanyi capturing the underlying menace in the great diatonic triadic declarations on full orchestra. Also the uncanny contrast after Judith’s disappearance with Bluebeard’s former wives, at the seventh and last door, followed by a massive and menacing crescendo on full orchestra, at the close of the work on muted pp strings with the piercing woodwind dissonances in semitones dying away, becoming more haunting, was handled by Dohnanyi with a mastery which only comes from decades of operatic conducting experience. Finally Bartok and Balazs seem to be saying that the real and terrifying tragedy of Bluebeard and Judith is not an end, a resolution  in the sense of death, but a continuing un-dead existence, Judith joining the spectral company of Bluebeard’s former wives, and Bluebeard in the thrall of an abysmal eternal recurrence of the same…the next wife. The next marital encounter in his blood polluted castle.

Geoff Diggines 


Back to the Top     Back to the Index Page

Seen and Heard
, one of the longest established live music review web sites on the Internet, publishes original reviews of recitals, concerts and opera performances from the UK and internationally. We update often, and sometimes daily, to bring you fast reviews, each of which offers a breadth of knowledge and attention to performance detail that is sometimes difficult for readers to find elsewhere.

Seen and Heard publishes interviews with musicians, musicologists and directors which feature both established artists and lesser known performers. We also feature articles on the classical music industry and we use other arts media to connect between music and culture in its widest terms.

Seen and Heard aims to present the best in new criticism from writers with a radical viewpoint and welcomes contributions from all nations. If you would like to find out more email Regional Editor Bill Kenny.


Search Site  with FreeFind


Any Review or Article

Contributors: Marc Bridle, 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, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, 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, Raymond Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)

Site design: Bill Kenny 2004