Live review – April Fredrick, David Stout, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle

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April Fredrick (soprano, Judith), David Stout [baritone (Bluebeard) / speaker (Prologue)], English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Bartók arr. van Tuinen / Karcher-Young Bluebeard’s Castle (1911/12)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded June 16-17 2021 for online broadcast, premieres 13 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s season of online concerts drew to its close tonight with a performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the only opera by Bartók and seminal work on the cusp between the late-Romanticism and nascent Modernism from the early twentieth century.

While its libretto by Béla Balázs is susceptible to interpretation, that concerning the ultimate impossibility of meaningful human communication is surely the decisive factor for Bartók’s setting of what became his longest work and his most explicitly personal statement. Yet this emotional scope never results in a lack of formal cohesion or expressive focus, ensuring that the duo-drama unfolds both inevitably and inexorably towards a fateful denouement that – by no means coincidentally – brings the piece full circle in terms of its underlying introspection.

A piece, then, of epic sweep but whose climactic moments only rarely dominate music that is (surprisingly?) well suited to reduction of a kind undertaken here by Christopher van Tuinen and revised by Michael Karcher-Young. The 25-strong ESO copes ably with those undulating contrasts in mood and texture that underpin the traversal of the protagonists through the castle and its environs, through to a culmination whose outcome feels no less tragic for having been ordained almost from the outset – a fable of disillusion whose impact comes across unscathed.

Of course, such considerations are relative to the success of the two singers in conveying the range of their respective roles. Whether or not she had previously sung that of Judith, April Fredrick has its full measure as she moves from confidence, via wariness and imploration, to reluctant acceptance of the part she must play in the completion of a journey that other wives have undergone before her. Rendered with vibrancy but no lack of finesse, this is a perceptive assumption, and one which Fredrick will hopefully be able to repeat on stage before too long.

Not that David Stout is necessarily upstaged in his portrayal of Bluebeard – emerging here as no misogynist, still less a murderer, than a conflicted figure whose avowals of love can never outweigh those inherent failings of self that have led to his repeating the same pattern of loss as before. Having previously taken on the spoken Prologue with thoughtful anticipation, Stout projects the role with no mean impetus as well as a keen eloquence that comes to the fore in those fateful later episodes when the sixth and seventh doors have almost to be prized open.

Otherwise, the ESO plays to its customary high standards throughout a score which, if never as radical as works of this period by Schoenberg or Stravinsky, remains a testing assignment with the integration of overtly expressionist tendencies into music of a Straussian opulence. This reduction loses little in either respect, due notably to a piano part as achieves more than textural filling-in then a harmonium part adding substance and atmosphere in equal measure. Kenneth Woods paces these 65 minutes with an acute sense of where the drama is headed.

Indeed, the only real proviso is the end-credits being accompanying by music from earlier in the opera. Surely it would be possible to have silence for the one minute it takes for these to ‘roll’? Otherwise, this is an excellent conclusion to a worthwhile season of online concerts.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For further information on future English Symphony Orchestra concerts, click here. ‘Fiddles, Forests and Fowl Fables’ is now available from the English Symphony Orchestra Website.