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Bartók and Stravinsky: Attila Fekete (tenor), Michele Kalmandi (bass-baritone),Gulbenkian Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Royal Festival Hall, London, 10.2.2011 (MB)


Bartók – Cantata Profana

Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring


The Rite of Spring drove much of the audience wild – well, relatively so, for this was a Royal Festival Hall audience, and a considerable number, as ever, jumped up to depart as soon as the music was over – but, for me, it was the Bartók pieces that received the more convincing performances. This was the second concert in the Philharmonia’s series, ‘Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók’. One can always quibble about the non-inclusion of certain works; my gripe would be the absence of the Four Orchestral Pieces, op.12, surely one of Bartók’s most suggestive works as he confronts the explorations of the Second Viennese School. Sadly, though, few conductors other than Boulez seem interested. Nevertheless, the present series, supported by the Meyer Foundation, deserves our support and gratitude, not least since it breaks free of the tyranny of anniversaries, and brings Bartók’s music to our attention simply because it is worthy of that attention.


Op.12 might be missing, but the rarely performed Cantata profana was not. Doubtless part of the reason for infrequency of performance is the text: soloists, let alone choirs, are not always highly proficient in Hungarian. Bartók’s songs suffer similarly. The Hungarian text is Bartók’s own translation from a Romanian epic, which tells the tale of an old man whose nine sons, ‘blooms of his proud manhood’ in Thomas Land’s English translation, pursue a deer and its magic tracks, and are then transformed into stags. Though the man finds them and beseeches them to return, not least on account of their mother’s suffering, they will not: ‘we must drink our fill not from your silver goblets but from cool mountain springs’. It is a wonderful piece, which appeared in Sir Georg Solti’s final recording, aptly enough his ‘homecoming’ to Hungary, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. I was surprised upon rehearing it, to note how close some of the orchestral introduction’s harmonies sound to Busoni’s Doktor Faust. Perhaps it is mere coincidence, or common influences, but it is far from impossible that Bartók might have known that score, adding a new connection to those more often cited and indeed explored during this series. The opening chorus showed a strong narrative drive, in both verbal and musical senses, the music clearly related to yet not dictated by the words. When the time came for solos in the second movement, Attila Fekete was rather tested by the difficult tessitura. His was a forthright rendition, hardly subtle, but often uncertain in intonation. Initially, Michele Kalmandi’s performance was similar, though the tuning was always less wild; however, he consistently impressed later on. Indeed, both baritone and orchestra sounded very close to the world of Bluebeard’s Castle. Plangent Philharmonia woodwind proved evocative of the delights and sadness of the forest. The dignity of the brass, including three trombones and tuba, was greatly appreciated in the third and final movement. Both Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Gulbenkian Choir ensured clarity in Bartók’s counterpoint, the toing-and-froing of choral responses honouring, though never pedantically so, the Passions of Bach.


The Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta followed. Salonen’s shaping of the first movement was impressive: patient yet inexorable in its cumulative power and remission, ensuring unambiguous projection of Bartók’s fugal arch. Piano (Elizabeth Burley) and celesta (Helen Crayford) made their presence felt in the second movement, likewise the fine kettledrum playing of Andrew Smith. Salonen ensured that Bartók’s neo-Lisztian technique of transformation was audible and meaningful. The Adagio sounded magical, not least on account of Hugh Webb’s harp-playing. During the finale, as elsewhere, the quality and depth of the Philharmonia’s string sound and the interplay between the two string groups proved a joy, though there were a couple of minor instances of ensemble uncertainty. There were times here, however, when Salonen’s stopping and starting detracted from a sense of the whole; his deliberation often worked wonders, but the integration was not always quite there. The level of execution was very high, though, for which the orchestra deserves praise indeed.


The same might also be said of The Rite of Spring. Rarely if ever have I heard the Philharmonia on more thrilling form. Yet Salonen’s direction veered between fascinating revelation and ‘orchestral showpiece’ brashness. Making a sense of the whole is not an easy matter, especially in the context of Stravinsky’s apparent anti-Teutonicism, yet some form of, or substitute for, the organic needs to be found, as for instance Boulez, in his constantly evolving interpretations, has always done. Salonen started off cool, but ‘Augurs of Spring’ brought intriguing connections with, verging upon reminiscences of, Petrushka. One heard them again, just as vividly, in the ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’. Yet the Jekyll to his Hyde reared his head in between: one does not expect the Rite to be consistently soft or even consistently subtle, but the brass was really too loud, at least for the acoustic. The performance was certainly exciting, or at least excitable, and sections received intensive individual characterisation, but did it quite cohere? It was almost as if – perhaps this actually was the case?! – Salonen was attempting at times to exemplify in performance Bartók’s own claim, mentioned in the programme note by Malcolm Gillies, that a ‘mosaic-like construction’ was sometimes ‘broken’ by Stravinsky’s overlaying of various repetitive chord sequences. The second part elicited similar interpretative contrast. Its introduction was superb, full of subtleties of colouration, its mysteriousness intensified by breathtaking instrumental clarity from the Philharmonia. And yet, when the music heated up, though the performance was marked by outstanding orchestral playing in itself, it was often far from clear how what we heard was connected to what we had heard or to what we were about to hear. Some passages therefore sounded robbed of their context and strayed dangerously close to American minimalism. (That may well have been the intention.) The Philharmonia’s execution certainly outstripped that of the Orchestre National de France in last year’s underrated Proms performance, yet Daniele Gatti’s subtler approach, one mishap notwithstanding, garnered greater musical laurels.


Mark Berry


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