Concerto for two pianos and percussion, Sz.115
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz.116
Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos)
Camille Baslé, Eric Sammut (percussion)
Orchestre de Paris
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Yes, the new Parisian Philharmonie is a thing of wonder, especially when lit at night. Walking across the Parc de la Villette, I happened to be there just at the moment when the lighting, as if by magic, was turned on. Resplendent as a craggy mineral, the jewel-fancier’s find of the century, from the outside, the hall and its acoustic put any London counterparts to shame; as, of course, do the acoustics of so many. (Chamber music is, of course, another matter entirely.) This is the sort of thing London so desperately needs; alas, should we see a new hall, the City of London’s claim seems already a done deal. A new cultural quarter, perhaps in the East, say at Stratford, well connected by Tube, rail, and bus, would be a real Olympic ‘legacy’. Cue hollow laughter. Trident calls.
In this, my first visit, Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Orchestre de Paris in an all-Bartók programme. I was struck at the opening of the Dance Suite by the bassoon sound, as if a French instrument of old. However, the dominant orchestral sound, that of the strings in particular, was surprisingly Germanic. Salonen’s conducting seemed to match that: surprisingly dark and, at times, deliberate. Then it came to life in the second movement, not unlike The Rite of Spring’s defrosting. Debussyan languor was another surprise, not at all unwelcome, visitor. The suite came across, then, in strikingly cosmopolitan manner. One heard at times a more traditionally ‘Hungarian’ accent, but it was one among many. What a joy, however, it was to hear this work, so often the province of chamber orchestras, played with such large forces. And how, in this acoustic, the final chord resounded!
The Labèque sisters joined orchestra percussionists., Camille Baslé and Eric Sammut for Bartók’s orchestral version of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. My reaction was much the same as when I have heard it in concerto form before; I do not mind the orchestral presence, but ultimately, do not feel that it adds so much, and should rather hear the ‘original’. The Labèques did ‘creepy’ well, for instance at the opening of the first movement; their percussionist colleagues played with masterly precision. However, much of the performance – who was in charge here? The pianists or the conductor? – seemed to sprawl somewhat: full of incident, but where was the direction? In the moment, though, soloists elicited sparks from each other, the layout and the hall permitting a welcome sense of spatial effect. Nocturnal mystery was palpable in the second movement, although again line was not always so apparent. Joyous contrast was the hallmark of the finale, almost as if this were Haydn reimagined. Bartók’s musical procedures spoke clearly; so did what they emotionally amounted to. The close was delightfully nonchalant.
It was the Concerto for Orchestra, however, which proved the highlight of the concert. Its opening offered dark, weighty sound from cellos and basses, deepened by the hall acoustic. The violin and flute response sounded almost frozen. Violas added warmth to the lower strings – a hint of the orchestral recitative in the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – and one heard, as it were, the full orchestra gradually come into being. Brass imparted if not quite yet a sense of arrival, then at least of a crucial staging-post. Salonen’s tempi here and indeed throughout the work were highly varied, with some of the deliberation that had marked the Dance Suite but also some more conventional ‘excitement’. The second movement proceeded similarly, albeit with its own instrumental character. I especially liked the grave yet rounded beauty of the Parisian trombones and horns, and of course the trio of bassoons, wonderfully fruity. Salonen’s view of the third movement fascinated. It emerged in strikingly cellular, quasi-Stravinskian fashion, with an almost Mahlerian pathos at its heart, assisted by great depth of string tone. This Elegy truly sang as a song of grief. That grief seemed to carry through into the shockingly vehement opening of the fourth movement. Then the clouds suddenly lifted, although the shadows were, perhaps inevitably, not entirely dispelled. Salonen was in no hurry here; the time given for the violas to sing was especially welcome. But it was not so slow overall, rather varied. The Lehár/Shostakovich deliberate banality hinted, enigmatically, at catastrophe. An enigma it yet remained. The finale offered the excitement of culmination and climax, sounding new, even equivocal at times, in this particular performative context. Tempi were again highly flexible; string tone again proved wonderfully deep. Bartók’s genius, never in doubt, felt nevertheless reaffirmed.