Sinfoniekonzerte, 30. Mai 2008, 30.5.2008 (JFL)

Haydn: Symphony No.80
Bartók: Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Haydn should not be given up to period specialists. Symphony orchestras more and more tend toward a niche program of exclusively romantic and post-romantic repertoire: from Beethoven to Sibelius and everything in between, with extra stops at Mahler and Shostakovich and occasional excursions to Philip Glass or John Adams.

But baroque music and increasingly classical period music as well are left to the devices of specialized performance groups – usually those that offer some form of Historically Informed Performance Practice (HIP). The proliferation of original instrument – and modern instrument HIP – groups is a boon to music, generally. Ever since their performance quality has improved from questionable to outstanding, they offer musical joys that delight over and over again, quite regardless of performance ideology. Even so, if their prominence in Monteverdi, Marais, and even Mozart comes at the expense of important composers and periods being part of the repertoire of ‘regular’ symphony orchestras, then alarm bells should ring for two reasons.

The first is that the audience would lose much fine music played by what remains the primary musical body of a city. Mozart and Haydn and Bach sound different when a large symphonic orchestra (even with reduced forces) is at work. But that isn’t bad at all, it’s desirable diversity. HIP is to add to our enjoyment by offering comparison and choice – not by replacing the way we’ve heard this music for so long. As much as can be learned from small groups led by gut-strung violins, be it the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the Academy of Ancient Music Berlin, or Musica Antiqua Cologne, we can also learn and take away something from an orchestra that plays Ein Heldenleben in one half of a concert and then Mozart’s Jeunehomme Concerto or a Bach Orchestral Suite or a Haydn Symphony in the other.

The Munich Philharmonic, known for its romantic, “old-Europe” sound that makes it stand out even among European orchestras that are more often said to be in the orchestral elite, is a good example of an orchestra that is – rightly – aware of the danger but also willing to something about it. And so Haydn’s Symphony No.80, nickname-less yet not any bit less lovely than its more famous brethren, showed up on the program the week that Hartmut Haenchen took on the orchestra. Generous and lively, with expressive silences and delicacy amid the inevitable heft, this was nicely done, even if the third movement was perhaps a little heavy footed. It may well have been the ‘warm-up’ for the orchestra, but at least it didn’t sound like one.

Warmed up, it was Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” that awaited the suspicious audience, the suspicion emphasized by absence and early departures. If any opera works well for concert treatment, it’s this one. Since the little action there is largely goes on in the two protagonists’ head, it can easily be imagined and need not necessarily be shown. I remember William Friedkin suggesting that most operas are be st ‘seen’ that way, in the case of this opera that could well be true. (And almost certainly was true when he staged it for the Washington National Opera two seasons ago.)

The Munich Philharmonic, which has a wonderful Bluebeard on record with James Levine, did well in this, especially when the singers (Lioba Braun as Judith, Rudolf Rosen as Bluebeard) and the orchestra found together some time after the second door, Bluebeard’s arsenal. The spikiness and jarring threats emitting from the torture gear and the plinky glittering glory of the treasure room were wonderfully done. For the blood-supported flower garden, Haenchen and the orchestra offered pure awesomeness.

The orchestra was descriptive, sumptuous, and offered the cinematic quality of this opera well. The soloists – especially Mme. Braun –threw themselves into their roles admirably and amiably. Either voices could have been bigger and clearer, though. Perhaps that was why Imre Kulcsár’s opening monologue of the bard stood out so much? He delivered it in his native Hungarian, of course, which really is the best way to perform Bluebeard’s Castle. The very sound of the introduction is important – and only the original Hungarian can deliver that. Translations can’t do that – and end up sounding silly or embarrassingly ridiculous. Meanwhile supertitles (laudably present in this concert performance) enable us to get the meaning which is too important than to just cut the scene outright.

Jens F. Laurson