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Concert Review: A Night of Firsts

BSO Gives Beautiful Performance Of Bartok and Brahms

By Tanya Goldhaber

Batok and Brahms

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Nov. 10, 2006

Once again, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has delivered a breathtaking performance. This particular concert was a program of firsts: Bartok’s first (and only) opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, and Brahms’ First Symphony in C-minor. Both performances were inspired, exhibiting both the technical excellence and emotional passion heard so often from the BSO.

In the first half of the program, the BSO performed Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle as a complete, unstaged opera. This particular opera was performed in the original Hungarian, and translations to English were provided in the program. The opera is scored for only two soloists: a soprano and a baritone. There is also a brief, spoken prologue, given in this performance by Ors Kisfaludy. The soprano for this performance was Anne Sofie von Otter and the baritone was Albert Dohmen. Both are talented artists who delivered wonderful performances. The only serious complaint was that both had a vibrato that was too wide in the higher and lower ranges respectively. At times it was hard to distinguish pitch due to the range of the vibrato itself.

The story of Bluebeard’s Castle is older than the opera itself, and has been told many times with various details altered. The basic plotline of the story is that Duke Bluebeard arrives home with his new bride, Judith. There are seven locked doors in his palace. In Bartok’s version, Judith has Bluebeard open the doors for her, but in other versions she opens the doors on her own with Bluebeard’s keys. In all the versions of the story, however, Bluebeard alternatively begs and commands Judith not to open the seventh door. Of course, she does, and finds all of Bluebeard’s previous wives. In this telling of the saga, they are still alive, and Bluebeard explains that he met one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. These are, predictably, metaphors for the stages of Bluebeard’s life. He explains to Judith that he met her at night, and she retreats into the room behind the seventh door, and Bluebeard dies. The audience does not actually see him die, but it is implied by his final line which, roughly translated from Hungarian, is “And now it will be night forever.” The piece was also not typical Bartok. It strayed from Bartok’s signature folk-music feel and instead focused on picture-painting. Bartok’s imagery was, in fact, very effective, and while following the action in the program, I was amazed at how clearly the music matched my mental picture of the scene.

Bartok is also genius in how he writes beautiful, melodic lines while simultaneously creating underlying musical tension. The ultimate effect was to create a sense of awe at what lay behind the earlier doors (jewels, a garden, etc.), while, at the same time, imposing a sense of unsolved mystery and reminding the audience that many of the doors remained unopened. The performance, all in all, was effective and riveting to listen to.

The second half of the night consisted of Brahms’ First Symphony in C-Minor. Since the BSO was already warm and in its groove, the performance was that much better. The Brahms Symphonies are always a joy to listen to, and the BSO’s performance was engaging and passionate. When the piece was in its final measures, I had trouble believing that the performance was over already.

Brahms’ First Symphony is a work of musical maturity, largely because, as First Symphonies go, this one was written late in Brahms’ career. Brahms was already relatively well-established as a composer when he completed the symphony, so the work was highly anticipated by the musical community. At this point, Brahms had written several pieces for large orchestras, among them two Serenades and the First Piano Concerto. I personally find the Brahms Symphonies to be more effective than the Serenades, and the BSO’s performance of the Brahms in particular was fantastic.

Both works were beautifully executed and I would recommend everyone to try to see them or any other BSO performance.