The performance was the thing, of course, though the paths in question are those I pursued in a Southbank talk preparing for it a couple of Saturdays back. Because of the link, and the fact that I could get tickets that way, I passed the concert review on to my Arts Desk colleague Sebastian Scotney, and I agree with everything there. More on the talk anon; certainly last night vindicated Bartók's chef d'oeuvre as one of the 20th century's towering masterpieces, indeed one of the greatest operas (no need to preface that with 'one-act') in the most nuanced performance I ever hope to hear from the electrifying Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra, and - it should go without saying - the most idiomatic, too.
The Bluebeard, Krisztián Cser, was literally jaw-dropping - when he did that, cavernous sounds came from within the genuine bass. He and Ildikó Komlósi - an old hand at Judith, but still one of the classiest - performed out front from memory, no special lighting, no gimmicks. Fischer recited Béla Bálazs' Prologue so beautifully that I decided I want to learn it just to please my Hungarian friends; the orchestra did the castle-sighing. We felt the beauty, the jarring pain, the supernatural flickers in the garden and on the lake of tears. It was yet another of those performances where you could only wonder at what an astounding work it is, how on earth Bartók keeps pulling idea after idea out of the conjurer's hat in such perfect music-drama sequence.
My guest was none other than our Sophie Sarin, on her last evening in the UK for a while - she's off to Sweden now and back to Mali for what may be the last time at her hotel. Never having experienced the opera before - she was shocked by the ending - she managed to slip in rather belatedly that she had 'played' the corpse of one of Bluebeard's wives in a seemingly unobtainable 1982 film based on Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and starring Terence Stamp. Oh, that Sophie! We have, of course, seen her big-hair, shake-it-all-about appearance in the (actually rather good) movie of Jesus Christ Superstar (she happened to be travelling in Israel, where it was filmed, at the time).
But back to the concert. The first half was typical Fischer enterprise, preceding Bartók's Hungarian Peasant Songs, all flaming strings and authentic Magyar clarinet, with some of the original versions performed, in relaxed and witty fashion, by the ineffable Márta Sebestyén (pictured above by László Perger) and three players from the orchestra who like to jam in folk idiom; the violinist, István Kádár, is as compelling as his folk singer, and in the encore you feared Zsolt Fejervári would snap his double-bass in two. Only a couple of small snags: I always like to know what the texts mean - there were no supertitles in this half, no introduction of the meaning despite Fischer's splendid commentary with examples of Bartok's phonograph folk recordings - and we really needed to be able to dance.
The dance I led the audience at the 'What You Need to Know' study day on Bartók and Bluebeard's Castle was very much around the heart of darkness. Of course I wanted to tackle the juicy subject head-on, but that was to fall to the excellent Jonathan Cross in the afternoon (I couldn't stay because of a deferred weekend in Lacock, but I have the soundfiles so I shall certainly listen). I had the impossible task of summing up 64 years of life in 50 minutes. As the punters didn't get copies of my track list, I'm happy to refer to it here. And I'm punctuating this sequence with installations as part of Müpa's Ludwig Museum Bartók homage, which I never got round to writing about when I came back from Budapest last November.
At the top of the piece is Ádám Csábi's Bartók, based on his idea that the composer's face hardly changed throughout the years - hence multiple plywood-and-acrylic heads carefully lit. Here's a different angle.
The start for the talk was obvious to me - two C major blazes, since the first work at its 1902 performance in Budapest inspired the young Bartók to devote his life properly to composing: Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra opening and the opening of the Fifth Door in Bluebeard's Castle (both conducted by Boulez, a curious candidate for the first).
I then did a rewind to trace Bartók's steps up to his Budapest training, noting how each of the places the family lived when he was growing up tends to be in another country now - Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia (important to the mix of folk idioms he was later to study). I thought we could look at the divide between his early late-romanticism and the steps towards modernism in the Two Portraits of 1908 - the end of 'Idealised' and the opening of 'Distorted', very much à la Berlioz in the Symphonie Fantastique (recording courtesy of the incredible Ferenc Fricsay and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra).
The new modernism took us via the Allegro barbaro of 1911, Bluebeard year, in a 1929 performance by the composer-pianist, to his interest in folk music (cue further archive recordings in an excerpt from the Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Songs and 'New Hungarian Folk Song' from Mikrokosmos Book 5 arranged for piano duo, Bartók and his second wife Ditta Pásztory, recorded in New York in 1941). Pictured below from the exhibition: Dénes Farkas's Microcosm and Gábor Palotai's Makrokosmos 1-16.
Then did a sideways leap to a folk arrangement by his fellow collector from 1905 onwards, Zoltan Kodály: the song collected in the Tolná area 'This side of the Tiszá' ('Tiszán innen, Dunán túl'), as given to Háry János and his beloved Őrzse in the 1926 folk opera which, shamefully, I've never heard performed complete in the UK (I caught it in Vienna from Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra - piquantly, since the tall tale is about the adventures of the lying soldier in the Austrian capital. Our performers on the excerpt were László Palócz, Erzsébet Komlóssy and István Kertész conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, prefaced by Peter Ustinov). Had it confirmed by a Hungarian speaker in the audience that what we know as the 'Scots snap' rhythm comes from the language's stress on the first syllable. Gave a purely orchestral song equivalent in the context of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta's third-movement 'melody' (Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner). Pictured below: Adrienn Dorszanki's Bartók, turning text from the Cantata Profana into morse code.
Like Fischer in the concert talk, I thought I ought to illustrate a couple of folksongs as recorded by Bartók on his phonograph - mine were later, from his trip to Turkey in 1936 - 'My darling is following' sung by Emine Muktat and 'One can feel that the summer is coming' delivered by Zekeriye Culha.
The question of melismatic ornaments in folksong allowed me to cue the opening of the First Piano Concerto's finale. Moving from 1926 to 1930, I let the chord clusters in the middle of the Second Concerto's central movement stand for his extreme dissonances of that time. And then a leap forward to America and the straightening-out of the Adagio religioso; stuck with Stephen Kovacevich and Colin Davis for all three. The biography inevitably got a bit squeezed, and in ending with a miserable Time obituary which remembered Bartók only as 'prolific Hungarian composer of piquant, sometimes cacophonous orchestral and chamber music', citing only one work - 'Contrasts for Benny Goodman', I didn't have time to play the final extract - Bartók, Goodman and Joseph Szigeti in their celebrated 1940 recording.
Still, we had a lot of sound-clips, and it worked well in tandem with Sarah Lenton's ensuing talk on the plot and literary precedents of Bluebeard's Castle, which stuck to the visuals (so the audience got to see this famous photo of Bartók recording in the countryside).
Fischer, of course, was absolutely charming in his presentation of the recorded folksongs; how wonderful it would have been to have him there for the study day too. I do want to meet him. And it strikes me that, of the world's great 'orchestras with voices', the Budapest Festival Orchestra will never let you down so long as he's in charge, while with the Berlin and Vienna Phils, it very much depends on the conductor; you can hear boring performances in their hands. With Fischer, never. His concerts are always true events. Long may he continue to bend the standard format to his own vibrant will. Anyway, the next time I hear Hungarians perform live it will be in the hall announced below.