Royal Festival Hall, London
Suite: The Wooden Prince
Piano Concerto no.2
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin)
Mark van de Wiel (clarinet).
The penultimate concert in the Philharmonia’s series, ‘Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók’ maintained, indeed built upon, the high standards heard earlier this year: Esa-Pekka Salonen really seems to be in his element in Bartók’s music, as does the Philharmonia. First off was Contrasts, for which soloist Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra’s leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay and principal clarinettist, Mark van de Wiel in a true chamber-music performance. Balance between the players was as finely judged as that between slinkiness – as Malcom Gillies put it in his programme note, ‘creative reinterpretation of [commissioner Benny] Goodman’s musicianship, deliciously filtered through Bartók’s remarkable ethnomusicological ear’ – and echt-modernist Bartókian rhythm. From the first movement onwards, musical kinship with composers such as Prokofiev and Ravel (I thought especially of the latter’s violin sonata) was in evidence, likewise a real sense of the three musicians as dramatic protagonists. The clarinet cadenza was superbly despatched. Mystery was struck from the outset of the second movement, ‘Pihenő’ (‘Relaxation’), its bitter-sweetness properly touching, violin harmonics and subdued piano rumbling – casting a glance backward to the First Piano Concerto – exemplary, the music’s growing intricacies finely charted. Visontay’s violin set the pace for the others in the third movement’s diabolical drama – I was put in mind of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale – though van de Wiel’s clarinet riffs sounded every bit as impressive, likewise the softer, creepier passages, which emerged both menacing of full of delight in the composer’s fabulous musical invention.
The 1932 suite from The Wooden Prince followed, perhaps for me the highlight of the concert. Bartók’s Prelude evoked Nature’s Rheingold-style awakening more evocatively than one had any right to imagine. The music grew with great cumulative power, magnificent orchestral weight, and Ravelian colouristic fantasy in more or less perfect equipoise. Salonen did not lose sight of the ballet; one could certainly picture the music being danced to, though alas it would be unlikely to sound anything like as good as this in a danced performance. The dances were all characterised by sharp rhythmic profile, with some especially splendid brass playing, but the fantastic realm vied equally for attention, a Szymanowski-like magic carpet brought before our ears. Both luxuriant warmth and the more forward-looking elements of the score were equally apparent; even the celesta hinted at the Music for Strings. If only we could have heard the entire ballet from these musicians: maybe another time…
The Dance Suite opened almost as if pure rhythm, gradually melodised, as it were, by Amy Harman’s superb bassoon solo, Bartók’s far-from-easy piano part – I remember playing it in a student performance a few years ago – in the highly capable hands of guest principal, Elizabeth Burley. More wistful moments, in the first movement and elsewhere, displayed Salonen’s astute distinction between sentiment and sentimentality. The third dance, ‘Allegro vivace’, was taken at a considerable pace, yet seemed just right – as Bartók must. (That one need not slavishly follow his metronome markings is illustrated by his own performances, yet the tempo has to sound as though it is the only one possible.) Rhythmic precision and depth of string tone distinguished a fine performance throughout.
Bronfman returned to the stage for the Second Piano Concerto, the first movement’s solo part immediately pounding and implacable, yet equally notable in dialogue with wind – the Philharmonia brass especially – and percussion. Bronfman imparted clarity as well as power, permitting Bartók’s Bachian heritage to shine through. Silent during the first movement, strings at the outset of the second sounded anything but lush, Bartók’s glassy alienation arguably going further than ever Stravinsky dared; the piano could therefore not only respond coolly, but had ample opportunity to grow in intensity. Lively, even helter-skelter episodes were not purchased at the cost of bite, though I occasionally wondered whether it was all a little too unremitting. (One might with justice respond that so the music should be.) The finale united the virtues of both earlier movements, never losing sight of Bartók’s profusion of lyricism. Bronfman’s Romantic manner was arguably not always quite to be identified with Salonen’s more modernistic impulse, but the slight tension proved productive rather than glaring.