Prom 49: Philharmonia/Dohnányi

Bach orch. Webern; Adès; Bartók

Royal Albert Hall, 20 August 2007 4 stars

Bluebeard

The programme for the Philharmonia's Prom was the ideal showcase for the high level of technical refinement they can achieve under their outgoing Principal Conductor, Christoph von Dohnányi. There is never a dull moment with this team onstage, because Dohnányi probes every score he conducts with the most enlightening results, regardless of period or style. Even if a little more unbridled emotional communication would be welcome occasionally, the sheer perfection of the performances more than made up for it - and it wasn't the fault of orchestra or conductor that the hall was two-thirds empty, probably the reason for an occasional lack of atmosphere.

Webern's 1934-5 orchestration of the Ricercar from Bach's Musical Offering was an inspired addition to the programme since the concert was first announced in April. The piece (in its original, unorchestrated form) is related to one of the most surprising and amusing incidents in Bach's life. King Frederick II of Prussia challenged the composer to write a six-part fugue based on a theme provided by the monarch on the spot - but it was too complicated, and Bach couldn't oblige. However, he later worked at it and provided the king with a 'Musical Offering' of two ricercars, a sonata and ten canons, all based on the 'royal theme'. It's refreshing to hear a story about the genius composer's limits, though he did of course meet the challenge in the end with his usual technical flair.

The second ricercar is distinctive for its textural density and the complexity with which the subject is improvised. When Webern came to orchestrate it, however, he added an extra interpretative layer. The contrapuntal lines are given coloration by sharing them amongst the instruments on a very detailed level, so that the first hearing of the main theme is divided into three and shared between three groups of instruments. Tempo, expressive and dynamic markings become of equal importance to the pitch and length of the notes, and in Dohnányi's wonderful performance we really heard the nuances of Bach as realised by Webern. Dohnányi dispensed with his baton for the piece, using his arms alone for expression (as is traditional for baroque works). He built momentum up from the disparate lines very cleverly and with a sense of the dual composers' logic, leading to an elating climax at the end. Of the many excellent soloists in the performance, the lead cellist David Cohen deserves especial praise for his finely-honed phrasing during his solo section.

The remainder of the first half of the concert consisted of a suite from Thomas Adès' opera Powder Her Face, which will be revived by the Royal Opera next year. The new orchestral suite comprises the Overture, Waltz and Finale of the opera, totalling around twelve minutes of music, and it was not the most substantial or convincing experience. The popularity of Adès with the London orchestras and the Royal Opera House never fails to amaze me: although he is a gifted orchestrator and has undoubted skill, I have yet to hear anything totally convincing from him. The Overture was the most interesting of the three movements here, expressing the decadence of the lead character via a postmodern distorted reworking of a foxtrot. The brass players of the orchestra seemed to revel in the dissonance of their large chords, and Dohnányi crafted the performance with steadily growing impetus. However, I found the Waltz too understated for an orchestral context such as this: the violins soon stop playing the pizzicato triple-time beats and instead play high distorted notes while the trombones slide about, the snare drum beats loudly and the woodwinds play random lines. Even worse, I didn't feel the dance rhythms came across at all in the Finale, which had little impact at all. Although the orchestra's commitment to new music is admirable, this was not the best choice for their Proms appearance.

The main business of the evening was a concert performance of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle sung in Hungarian. Here Dohnányi really came into his own, both accompanying the singers sensitively and constantly drawing out all kinds of interesting details in the orchestration. For instance, the combination of tremolo violins and tuned percussion playing rising and falling scales when the first door is opened was clear and focused; again, the cello soloist brought a magnificent, yearning quality to the solo after the opening of the second door; the horn soloist (Laurence Davies, if I understand the programme correctly) was a true star from first to last in this piece, producing the most immaculate intonation imaginable; and the massive accumulation of instruments just before the opening of the final door (including timpani, bass drum, gong and cymbal) had enormous impact thanks to Dohnányi's ability to pace the performance with a sense of direction.

He was also an attentive accompanist to the excellent singers, who were rarely drowned out despite the sumptuousness of the orchestration. In particular, Falk Struckmann delivered a completely fulfilling performance as Bluebeard. He has a true bass-baritone voice, with full, exciting tone at the bottom as well as the top, which complemented his full-blooded attack; he is also unusually intelligent in his approach to the text, whose dramatic significance was always obvious to me even though I do not speak Hungarian. Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant was the perfect partner for him. Diminutive in stature next to the imposing Struckmann but a spirited and energetic performer, she brought home the vulnerability of Judith's situation. Her voice has an opulence that lends itself to this music: in particular, she brought a sensuality to the scene with the revelation of the gold and jewels. Special mention goes to Mátyás Sárközi's spirited and commanded narration, getting the performance off to a strong start.

One of the supreme achievements of twentieth-century opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle received a revelatory and engaging account at the hands of Dohnányi and the Philharmonia - and it certainly deserved a bigger audience than was the case here.

By Dominic McHugh