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"Hungarian Echoes 2," Ligeti, Haydn, Bartók : Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Gábor Bretz (bass), Richard Easton (speaker), Esa-Pekka Salonen (guest conductor), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 19.3.2011 (BH)

: Concert Românesc (Romanian Concerto) (1951, rev. 1996)

Haydn : Symphony No. 7 in C major, Le Midi (The Noon), Hob. I:7 (1761)

Bartók : A kékszakállú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard's Castle), Opera in One Act, Op. 11 (1911-18)

Is there any good reason for Ligeti's Concert Românesc being so absent from the modern concert hall-especially when Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic gave such a dashing, confident performance? Written when the composer was in his mid-twenties, the references to Enescu and Bartók are unmistakeable, and I can imagine many who would never fancy themselves Ligeti fans being delighted by this early work that only hints at the towering explorations to come. Plus, it has humor: in the second movement, marked "Allegro vivace," heavily accented dance rhythms are interrupted by a handful of well-timed pauses that Salonen fully exploited for their comic effect. The third movement uses a pair of horns, one offstage, for an unusual echo effect. Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow had his hands full with some lightning solos in the boisterous finale, marked "Molto vivace," and here Salonen probably added an extra "molto," with the ensemble in a thundering rhythmic gallop, with the composer/prankster deploying a false ending.

The genteel Haydn Symphony No. 7 gave Dicterow even more work, albeit not at 200 kph speeds, and some engaging duets with principal cellist Carter Brey. Some other shaky ensemble moments aside, the net result-especially the charming second movement-reminded me of a pleasant summer day, the sun beaming down without being oppressive.

But there was no question that Bartók's A kékszakállú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard's Castle) was the evening's centerpiece. Stepping in for an indisposed Marthe Keller, actor Richard Easton recited the opening text, in which the composer urges the audience to enter Bartók's tale. This magnificently orchestrated, magnificently disturbing score has many pleasures, and Salonen and the large orchestra found the dazzling colors in all of them, collaborating with two outstanding soloists and some well-considered lighting effects. (No staging was used; the singers stood on either side of the podium.) As the house lights dimmed, the onstage walls turned blue or violet-that is, until they changed to red, each time Judith opened the seven doors in Bluebeard's castle, and realized that behind each are contents tinged with blood.

I'd heard Michelle DeYoung as Judith before, and she is only getting more confident in the part, with luxurious tone and exacting intonation. Her high C during the opening of the fifth door was thrilling, with a small special effect: the entire house lights suddenly blazed on-yes, including those in the audience. And in character, DeYoung offered a strange vulnerability, coupled with some alarming naïveté mixed with passion; when she decided to open those doors, she wouldn't be stopped.

The evening's surprise-new to me and making his Philharmonic debut-was the marvelous Hungarian bass Gábor Bretz, who not only sang the title role with creepy verve, but is also slightly taller than the statuesque Ms. DeYoung. Both attractive, they could have flown in from Cannes. In the opening scene, there were times when he turned his head to stare at her with an unwavering gaze, cold in its malevolent understatement. But his singing told the real story. Using his sumptuous, all-enveloping tone, coupled with precise Hungarian enunciation, he made a slightly sad Bluebeard, a man who won't-or can't-warn Judith of the fate ahead of her.

Bruce Hodges

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