The Philharmonia Orchestra and principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen packed the fourth instalment of their exploration of Bartks musical world with performances of four of his most colourful compositions.
First on stage were pianist Yefim Bronfman, Philharmonia concert master Zsolt-Tihamr Visontay and principal clarinet Mark van de Wiel for a striking performance of Bartks 1938 chamber trio Contrasts. Aptly named, the trio pits the different timbres of violin and clarinet against each other. The piano is mainly relegated to a rhythmic supporting role, although Bronfman made the most of Bartks occasional solo flourishes. Visually as well as aurally it was a fascinating performance, particularly during the frenetic third movement, which saw Visontay and Wiel swap between variously tuned violins and clarinets.
The Wooden Prince is a neglected work, both in the concert hall and in the theatre, yet this ballet score is one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces Bartk ever wrote. He adapted the 1917 score to a suite, which was presented by the Philharmonia. The work makes huge demands of an equally huge orchestra which includes four harps and two saxophones but Salonen presided over it all with command, delicacy and understanding. While remaining true to Bartks insistence that his ballet was a symphonic poem to be danced to, Salonen was also careful to shape the more descriptive passages from the ballets narrative. Thus he skillfully evoked the dark sonorities of the opening prelude (Natures Awakening), with its echoes of Wagners Rheingold and Ravels Daphnis and Chloe, and he revelled in the jerkiness of the final Dance of the Princess with the Wooden Prince.
An affinity with east European dance patterns shaped Salonens response to the Dance Suite. Written for the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of Budapest from its three constituent towns, the suite has always proved popular because of its rhythmic immediacy and lack of complications for the listener. Yet even here, the Philharmonia found something new to say in the prominence given to the percussive piano, and the emphasis on orchestral techniques that later found their way into the Concerto for Orchestra.
Just when you thought it couldnt get better, Yefim Bronfman returned to the stage for a thrilling account of Bartks Piano Concerto No. 2. Although conceived as a lighter alternative to No. 1, the concerto is no pushover. How Bronfman managed to play the exhausting solo part from memory is anybodys guess. He and Salonen were clearly of one mind when it came to emphasising the works brittle spareness and neo-classical formality. The only quibble came early in the first movement when the solo piano mostly drowned out the woodwind parts a problem of positioning as well as the Royal Festival Halls imperfect acoustics. But there were no audibility problems for the hushed strings of the central Adagio, or the final, thundering romp home by piano and full orchestra.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk