Kristjan Järvi’s concerts often promise something new and surprising. His latest outing with the London Symphony Orchestra (headlined ‘Balkan Fever’) coupled folk-inspired classical music from central and south-eastern Europe with jazz-inflected traditional music from the region, played by three of its best known musicians.
Given the unusual nature of the programming, the results were mixed. The inclusion of two infrequently heard works by Zoltan Kodàly was a welcome move. The Dances of Galànta of 1933 and the Variations on a Hungarian Folksong (‘The Peacock’) from 1939 have long been overshadowed by Bartók’s orchestral works. Both pieces show a mastery of orchestration, an assurance and inventiveness with structural forms, and a Bartók-like ability to overlay traditional rhythmic and harmonic patterns with idiomatic writing.
Järvi certainly got to grips with the stirring pace of the faster Galànta dances, though his physical gyrations and hand waggling on the podium created a slightly disconcerting impression. His handling of the Peacock Variations was altogether more subtle, as befitting a substantial work with its historically pertinent theme of freedom (the Peacock song, from which the variations take their theme, is a traditional song on liberty and release from imprisonment). Despite the rather odd gesturing, Järvi pulled in some fine playing by members of the LSO, with the brass and woodwind sections on particularly good form.
With George Enescu’s 1901 Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 Järvi was really able to let rip. This picture postcard montage of folk themes really does invite hip swinging and foot tapping from the listener (as well as the conductor). Not that Järvi neglected Enescu’s subtler moments – the opening, plaintive theme on oboe, for example. And even during the swirling second half, he never allowed the LSO strings to completely vulgarise the piece.
Following a gutsy rendition of the Jewish Wedding Dance from Georgian-born Jacques Press’ symphonic suite Hasseneh, the second half of the concert consisted of arrangements by Bulgarian jazz musician and kaval flute player Theodosil Spassov. The kaval is a chromatic, end-blown flute, known across the Balkans as a traditional shepherd’s instrument. When coupled with the scintillating playing of guitarists Vlatko Stafanovski and MiroslavTadić, Spassov’s playing moved from the haunting, to the comic, to the exhilarating. Where it fell down was in some of the accompanying orchestral arrangements. The brass and percussion interjections sometimes added an extra dimension to the three ‘folkier’ soloists, but more often than not the strings simply supported them with a plain chordal background. At its worst, it sounded kitsch and sterile. Overall, this was an intriguing experiment in music making, if not the sort of concert you’d want to hear too often.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk