Rhinegold Photo credit: Mark Allan
Sir Simon Rattle: an X-Ray ear for detail and clarity

Colin Clarke

Rattle ramps up the tension in LSO’s ‘safe’ Bluebeard

8:42, 9th September 2020

Bartók Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, LONDON

Available on YouTube in the UK from 25 October for 90 days.

The sheer relief of hearing live music in the wake of Coronavirus is remarkable: the London Symphony Orchestra should have been in Japan – and indeed this performance was broadcast there first, including a post-performance speech and deep bow from the orchestra to the Japanese audience.

With strings one to a desk and the small audience (plus some brass) up in the Gods looking down on Sir Simon and his players, this remarkable performance happened. This Bluebeard was heard in a reduced orchestration for chamber orchestra recently created by Eberhard Kloke (Universal Edition). Rattle has a well-known X-Ray ear for detail and clarity, so the result was in some senses like the restoration of a fine painting. The variety of sonority was astonishing (the scoring still uses such instruments as bass clarinet and contrabassoon); here, it seemed the cor anglais took on a particular importance, plaintive and potent. It was sung in Hungarian, with the spoken introduction (Finley) in English. A screen fulfilled a variety of functions, from a picture of a church door to dark black-and-white clouds that could have graced a Béla Tarr movie.

The two singers used the space behind and around the conductor, especially the stairwells, in a sort of limited choreography, with coloured lighting adding to the ambience. But it was the standard of playing in particular that impressed, Rattle involved in his characteristic gesturing on the podium, but there was nothing extraneous. He has the complete measure of the piece, keeping the tension taut from start to finish.

Of the two singers, Gerald Finley was on finest form as Duke Bluebeard, his voice of mahogany, confident, menacing. From the audience perspective, Karen Kargill’s Judit could seem too quiet, most notably in the moment of the scream at the fifth door.

The LSO is no stranger to the score, of course: there is an LSO Live account with Gergiev, the astonishing Elena Zhidkova and Sir Willard White. Rattle’s vision is finer, though, its mix of raw emotion and consistent direction a triumph. Also triumphant was the organisation of this event, so a nod in that direction is warranted – proof positive that public concerts can be viable and safe.

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