Bartók (with his friend Kodály) was an avid collector of Hungarian and Romanian folksongs, several of which he inimitably arranged for orchestra. The first part of this brilliantly conceived program juxtaposed Bartók’s compositions with the corresponding folk music, opening with a trio from the Budapest Festival Orchestra – violinist István Kádár, violist András Szabó, and bassist Zsolt Fejérvári – playing the Romanian dances that Bartók orchestrated. Then Márta Sebestyén, a celebrated Hungarian vocalist, was the perfect choice for her country’s tradition. In native garb Sebestyén gave ample evidence of her talents, with exuberance, joined at times by Iván Fischer and the musicians also singing. Hearing such ditties in their indigenous guise followed by Bartok’s versions was a marvelous experience, sung so delightfully and then played with eagerness.
The second half was devoted to Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, from 1911, its idiom benefitting from the composer’s exploration of peasant music, particularly parlando-rubato melodies driven by rhythms that relate to verbal inflections and metric flexibility engendering a declamatory and melodic style Hungarian in character.
Ildikó Komlósi and Krisztián Cser were well-suited to the word and idiom of Bluebeard’s Castle. Komlósi has a strong, demonstrative quality with a noticeable wobble that becomes more prominent as the dynamic level increases. But she sang with deeply-felt expression and dramatic flair. Cser’s rich, deep-throated voice fits the role of Bluebeard aptly. Even if he sounded somewhat wooden during the early stages he began to resonate more fully until he became so immersed as to give a brilliantly forceful reading.
Fischer’s reading of Bartók’s only opera was essentially straightforward, but always gripping. From the dark and disturbing atmosphere of its somber introduction, to the chilling outburst that explodes with regal grandeur as the fifth door (‘The Kingdom’) is opened, and through the shattering climax that accompanies the prospect of the final one that reveals the bodies of Bluebeard’s wives, this was a powerful, brilliantly shaped, incisively rendered and dramatically engrossing performance. The evening was a major success, musically and conceptually.