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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 68, Bartók, Kodály, Ligeti and Enescu: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London. 4.9.2007 (ED)


For their second Prom of the season the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim explored music that you would not expect them to play often, and with results that were somewhat unexpected too.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra did perform Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta under Boulez in London’s Royal Festival Hall a few years back, but one wonders how many times they have since, if one puts the current tour aside. I suspect not many as the reading sounded too safe and generalised. The first movement’s opening is one of restraint – not, I feel, a natural Barenboim characteristic – and he shaped the music perhaps too loosely general terms until it became more effusive in character. Although percussion parts and harp solo lines carried presence, the string tone was too typically Viennese: plump and lush. The application of rubato simply made it sound closer to Richard Strauss than Bartók – a very strange effect. Some elements of the shadowy fugue came through effectively in the second movement, though again this could have benefited from starker characterisation. The third movement’s harrowing nocturnal visions were suitably unsettling and the hectored finale was at times in danger of running away with itself slightly, yet it never quite did so enough to really capitalise on the intense build up of emotional energy that the music creates.  When all is said and done my concert diary entry from the Boulez performance reveals the inclusion of more that was lacking here.

Kodály’s Dances of Galánta draws on folk music found around the plains north of the
Danube for its inspiration, and is as a result ever lively of tempo and in its musical shifts and shadings. Greater definition to the overall orchestral body than was evident in the Bartók meant that whilst the fluid and florid clarinet theme of the first dance was enjoyable the performance as a whole sounded almost too well bred. How strange it seemed to find the quality of the VPOs famous string tone very nearly a disadvantage in performance.

The layers of tone, gesture and rhythm that build Ligeti’s Atmosphčres carry an in-built resonance of the other-worldly about them, which is arguably what drew Stanley Kubrick to use the work in 2001: A space odyssey. At once static and suggestive of movement, the piece is disorientating for the listener at first, and only part way through does it start to hang together. Barenboim’s direction focussed on technicalities and maintaining tempo whilst the players proved that modern works are wholly within their reach when the occasion demands. After all, it’s not as if there is a work that is technically beyond their superior instrumental abilities. Quite what the wild-haired Ligeti would have made of the straight-laced way in which the frock coated Viennese quietly set about brushing the strings of a lidless concert grand is anyone’s guess. I suspect he’d have welcomed the unusual sight with an inward chuckle, and no less appreciated the care for precise instrumental sonority they showed in their performance.

In the context of this concert, Enescu’s links with Vienna should be noted: he graduated with distinction as a violinist from the Conservatory at the age of 10 and played in Viennese ensembles under Brahms’ baton. Given the earlier Kodály Dances an interesting counterpoint might have been provided by Enescu’s Third Orchestral Suite, “Villageoise”. What we did hear however, the Romanian Rhapsody no. 1, showed less imagination of programming and did nothing to advance before the public the mature output of this “subtle, complex and deeply serious composer”, as Calum MacDonald put it in his programme note.

The rhapsody is something of a youthful indiscretion, being completed before Enescu was 20; thankfully it is not as omnipresent in concert programmes as it once was. With Barenboim giving entry cues those in the balcony could hardly have missed the Vienna Philharmonic turned in a syrupy reading that lacked rhythmic bite early on, and stumbling into many pitfalls of predictability along the way that make the piece both hackneyed and a genuine clap trap.

The enthusiastic applause was rewarded with two encores from the VPOs native repertoire: Johann Strauss’ Annen-Polka and Eljen a Magyar. If the latter rounded the circle of Transylvanian inferences and connections in this concert, the former ‘featured’ a severe slip of string ensemble coordination. I never thought I would hear that from the Vienna Philharmonic – and particularly not in a Strauss polka!


Evan Dickerson

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