Hungarian Night at the Proms was surprising for its failure to draw a capacity audience, something of a mystery given the dramatic music contained within its programme. It may be that the long sit promised by Liszts lesser known Faust Symphony was the deciding factor, but those opting out missed a treat.
Kodlys Dances of Galanta took a while to catch fire, for while Vladimir Jurowski was cajoling his forces they remained resolutely earthbound until some of the faster dances, where the music took off at a terrific rate. There were excellent solos from the LPO woodwind, with a bold initial cry from John Ryans horn and a series of wonderfully acrobatic lines from Nicholas Carpenters clarinet, and the abundance of melodic material guaranteed in a Kodly piece was brought to the fore.
Melody is perhaps not the most obvious play of Bartks Piano Concerto No.1, though its rhythmic drive and interplay of fragmented riffs compensate in abundance. Jurowski chose to move the percussion to the front of the stage, as the composer would have wished. This lent an edge to an otherwise refined performance, revealing some of the musics brittle nature, but stopped short of outright aggression save for the terrific crack of the side drum with which the first movement ended.
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gave an excellent performance of the piano part, crisp and percussive but also finding unexpected moments of lyricism. The second movement was the emotional centre, a taut dialogue with percussion that successfully hushed the audience, while the finale was bright, its rhythms driven and bringing through the elements of jazz that make this concerto sound so modern despite a 1926 composition date. As an encore the pianist turned on the style with Liszts Invocation.
Having sat in their seats since 19:30, the men of the London Philharmonic and Symphony Choruses finally got to their feet at 22.00 to sing Chorus Mysticus, the crowning paean of Liszts Faust Symphony. By that time the piece had already been in progress for an hour, but if that sounds gruelling Jurowski and his charges kept up the heat with a performance of often fierce intensity.
The opening movement was stormy, its precursors of Tchaikovsky and even Mahler audible in the wonderfully earthy lower strings and in the lower woodwind too, where bassoonist Gareth Newman excelled. The faster music when it arrived had a terrific cut and thrust, Jurowski noticeably pumped up, and the ensemble was outstanding as the music drove forward, the 30-minute first movement flying by as a result.
Perhaps inevitably in such a big work there was a dip in intensity that followed, though the Gretchen movement had several moments of sweetness, particularly when the front two desks of the violins broke off to form a graceful string quartet. The ensuing scherzo had an impressive snarl, giving Mephistopheles his come-uppance, before the final act, heard at the Proms for the first time since 1967. For this the tenor soloist Marco Jentzsch stood near the organ, delivering high register lines with admirable control.
Jurowski achieved the difficult task of balancing choir, orchestra, tenor soloist and organ with surprising ease, the sound wonderfully clean but richly affirmative, the men of the chorus singing as one with strong diction and purpose. As the sound built the crescendo was carefully managed, a terrifically exciting finish confirming that here is a work well ahead of its time and, if performed right as here one that can work a treat in the concert hall. With the 200th anniversary of his birth there will be many more Lisztian treats in store at the Proms this year, and it is well worth catching at least one of them.