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Schönberg, Pintscher & Bartók

Schönberg Die glückliche Hand, Op.18
Pintscher Osiris [UK premiere]
Bartók Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Op.11

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano) Peter Fried (bass)
BBC Singers/LSO/Boulez

Barbican Hall, London Sunday, May 11, 2008

The most notable thing about this concert was that, so far as one could see, the Barbican Hall was packed to the roof with a programme that not long ago might have been expected to all but empty it.

The secret would seem to be effective marketing; and maybe it is not so bad a thing that there are nowadays fewer "symphony concerts" in the now more democratic large concert halls than in earlier times; the Festival Hall with its riverside terraces has become a virtual people's palace, with a thriving community life inside and out. Audience loyalty to the LSO may also be playing a significant part in this encouraging sign of an upturn in London's musical life, even though a fully equally rewarding concert may fail to more than half-fill the small Purcell Room...

This has been a good year to reassess Schönberg. Recordings of the violin concerto, the wind quintet and Die glückliche Hand, all reviewed this year by Musical Pointers, have been revelatory shown him to have become more listener-friendly to 21st century ears. Do try to hear Hilary Hahn decipher the violin concerto, and Robert Craft's expert American players in the others. I had deplored the lack of a text for that peculiar short "opera" Die glückliche Hand, but surtitles at The Barbican proved that the sung words are really little help. But listened to as if it were almost abstract music, the orchestral textures are endlessly alluring and sounded gorgeous under the precise baton of Pierre Boulez, who amongst conductors represents the opposite pole from Gergiev who has recently been thrilling audiences whilst raising critical hackles...

I enjoyed the surface textures of Pintscher's latest long piece for large orchestra, but did not become engages with its mythological basis, and wondered if he is not at his better with smaller ensembles?

I have often found Bluebeard's Castle wearisome and wished there were fewer doors to be opened! But my hearings had mostly been on radio and record, or in the opera house with the orchestra consigned to a pit and redundant staging efforts to help engage the imagination. Better by far to have it in concert, especially if you have singers as powerful as these, and with their words helpfully and promptly screened (without technical problems such as those when they vanished from Judith Weir's Vanishing Bridegroom opera in January). I found it overwhelming and memorable, the culmination of a concert for which we must be thankful. But for a more authorative assessment by a critic who knows the dramatic potential of Bartók's score far better than I, do read Richard Whitehouse in Classical Source.

And do explore also another favourite take on the same source, which ought not to have been so eclipsed by Bartók's, the full length Ariane et Barbe-Bleue opera of Dukas, available on highly recommendable new CDs with Deborah Polaski/Bertrand De Billy [Oehms Classics OC 915].

Peter Grahame Woolf

Illustration Frédéric Lix Gallery: Bluebeard attempting to kill his last wife