Birmingham’s Symphony Hall is ideal for a great many pieces in the repertoire but every now and then a programme comes along that makes you wonder if the hall’s architects had designed it for that very concert. This was one of those programmes, featuring two Eastern European masterpieces that surely blew away any cobwebs in the furthest acoustical reaches of the hall.

Michaelle DeYoung © Kristin Hoebermann
Michaelle DeYoung
© Kristin Hoebermann

The first half consisted solely of Janáček’s popular Sinfonietta, launched at quite a lick by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Edward Gardner. Though it is a work that has featured frequently in the orchestra’s recent history it is still no mean feat for the thirteen brass players, ranged behind the choir stalls, to have executed their opening fanfares as slickly as they did. It is hard not to recoil instinctively upon hearing the brashness of these salvos but, in fact, the composer is said to have wished them to be played in this way, in emulation of a military band.

Gardner never let the tension sag throughout this pictorial journey through various locations in the now Czech city of Brno. Each exquisitely characterised episode seemed to segue seamlessly into the next. Though this was definitely a forward-moving account, there were plenty of orchestral details unearthed along the way. This was first class orchestral playing: from the rasping lower brass and fearlessly played high violin writing of the second movement to the frenetic cello figurations in the last. Gardner somehow managed to ratchet up the tension further still for the reprise of the opening fanfares at the coda, leading to an exhilarating conclusion.

That the Sinfonietta seemed to fly by was partly testament to the gripping reading but the relatively short first half was particularly effective in raising anticipation for the main work that would form the second: Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Gardner has conducted this work previously, fully staged, with English National Opera and though this was only a concert performance of the one-act opera, he brought a keen sense of drama and theatricality to the proceedings.

The opera is loosely based on a 17th century French literary tale, written by Charles Perrault. Béla Balázs’ libretto is a metaphorical and logistically practical interpretation of Perrault’s more gruesome story, in which Bluebeard’s new wife is introduced to his castle and eventually discovers the grisly secret of several murdered previous wives. Balazs’s libretto keeps the wives alive but it is somehow no less chilling a tale as they are discovered behind the last of seven doors, each opened in turn by Judit, the latest wife.

It’s a piece that seems to work well in the concert hall, though Gardner added some clever theatrical touches to the performance. The prologue was spoken by a disembodied but amplified voice (surtitles being a definite boon throughout) then singers, Michelle DeYoung and Gábor Bretz emerged through a creaking door as the ominous lower strings opening played out on stage. The castle’s sighs were creepily reproduced through speakers in the hall, whilst the offstage brass situated in the upper rear balconies provided a thrilling sense of surround sound at the astonishing point in the score when the fifth door is opened to reveal Bluebeard’s kingdom in all its glory. At this point, the collective goose pimples were palpable!

The singing was of the very highest quality. DeYoung, partly because of her register, was consistently audible even in the loudest moments of Bartók’s colourful score while Bretz was occasionally overpowered in this respect. DeYoung’s expressions were a masterclass in their own right, constantly conveying Judit’s feelings as they cycled between foreboding, desperate hope and grim realisation. Bretz was a still, sinister presence on stage, thoroughly at ease singing in his native Hungarian.

Marshalled by Gardner, the CBSO gave their all. Bartók’s score growled and glistened as it should. This was a thoroughly engaging performance in which you could have heard a pin drop in the quieter moments, not least the telling silence that followed the final note before the rapturous applause began.    

*****