The reception history of Bartks music has become a topic of revived interest in recent years, both from a musicological and more mainstream perspective. Of specific interest is the way in which the composers musical legacy was dismembered, following his death, by a series of socialist realist doctrines of art inflicted upon Hungary and the rest of the newly communist Eastern Bloc. One of the most conspicuous results of this musical narrow-mindedness was the creation of an aesthetic distinction: folklorism and modernism were rent apart (quite arbitrarily, it would seem), with the latter being condemned for its apparent decadence. Bartk himself seems to have become something of a propaganda tool, with a substantial part of his output banned from performance. How refreshing and how insightful it is, then, that Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia have embarked upon their project of articulating this inherent divide in Bartks oeuvre by reviewing and juxtaposing many of the composers better and lesser-known works.
Thursday nights concert at the Royal Festival Hall did just that, by combining a performance of the ever-popular Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (nothing short of a neo-classical masterpiece) with Bartks Cantata Profana (1930), a quite stunning work for tenor, baritone, double mixed chorus and orchestra. The latter work, presenting an ancient Romanian epic ballad in Bartks own Hungarian translation, delves into such themes as naturalism, pantheism and ritual. Certainly, its raw, primitive asperity came over quite brilliantly in performance, particularly by the Coro Gulbenkian, whose intense focus and often terrifying articulation was simply mesmerising. They required little guiding from Salonen, who took on the role of galvanising his forces with typical flair. Attila Feketes tenor was equally intense and startlingly piercing in its delivery, contrasting quite pleasingly with Michele Kalmandis resonant baritone.
Nevertheless, it was the ensemble rather than the soloists who impressed most in this work, and it was able to come to the fore in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and a performance of Stravinskys Rite of Spring, which followed the interval. Closer to Bach than to Beethoven (by the composers own admission), the former work is deservedly revered for its quite astounding levels of integration. The first movements fugal build-up started ever so quietly but maintained a contained sort of intensity throughout. This was a controlled performance, certainly, and one that seemed to reflect the strict detail apparent in Bartks writing. An incredibly energetic and remarkably incisive second movement gave way to an understated and compelling third movement, in which quotations of the works main theme appeared as reminiscences. Salonen was in no mood for hanging around or over-indulging in the dance-like finale, which moved at a pace but certainly never threatened to veer out of control.
Indeed, what struck me perhaps most about the Philharmonias playing was the impressive sense of self-assuredness: there was an element of danger, even of spontaneity in their playing, but it was rendered through a prism of such strict and fixed discipline that it refuted any sense of Romantic indulgence. And rightly so: Stravinsky in particular attempted quite conspicuously to break all links with Romanticism (not least with his furore-causing Sacre), while Bartks own modernist streak would eventually lead to a large portion of his oeuvre being banned from performance.
The Introduction to Stravinskys Rite of Spring was, again, so precise in its accuracy but not lacking in some almost elegant phrasing. Its simplicity made it all the more meaningful. A fantastic buildup in the Augurs of Spring eventually gave way to a perfectly measured Spring Rounds. I find this latter section is often performed with slightly too much forward momentum; Salonen gave it considerable breathing space and the opportunity to revel in those darkly resonant basses. On the other hand, the following section (leading into the Ritual of the Rival Tribes) was blisteringly quick and brilliantly intense.
Less is more seemed to be the ideal in much of Part II, with some compelling pianissimo playing by the muted trumpets in the Introduction. The tempo change leading into the Ritual Action of the Ancestors was handled well by Salonen, like a relaxation of speed rather than anything more deliberate. Likewise, delaying the final explosive chord of the whole work by a fraction just lent it that extra bit of dramatic power.
It was the attention to small details like that that really made this performance. If youre able to attend the next concert in this series, you shouldnt hesitate.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk