In essence, the work is about the aural effect, and the emotional affect, of the opening-out of a chord across the harmonic spectrum (microtonal shifts in evidence) and across the orchestral texture. The first section creates an unsettled atmosphere, its successor diversifying into elaborate layers of activity, before a statement of the ur-motif for the whole orchestra. The final section transforms a stoical piano piece, In memoriam András Mihály, into a shuddering processional implacable in its remorseless onward motion towards extinction. At 16 minutes, Oramos was an expansive account, but given his control over the musics unfolding, not to mention the dedication of the CBSOs response, it might have lasted 16 seconds in musical time. Lucky the Birmingham audience was treated to a second performance of this powerful work.
And the Four Capriccios, which opened the second half made for an ideal, and typically Kurtág-ian foil. Written around 1971, but revised in the 1980s and 90s before finally being published, these settings of pithy but emotionally or rather sexually explosive poems by István Bálint represent the violent and subversive qualities of Kurtágs song-writing to perfection. The deftly-constructed ensemble, cimbalom and percussion prominent, came through with startling clarity; an astringently expressive context for the sopranos heightened response here the excellent Anu Komsi. This was quite a discovery, even for those who reckon on knowing their Kurtág.
As to the remainder of the programme, Zoltón Kocsis tackled Bartóks Third Piano Concerto with a combination of rhythmic robustness and, in the tender slow movement, a refreshing absence of sentimentality. Kocsiss clipped phrasing in the opening Allegretto may have deprived the movement of its Mozartian finesse, but there was little here not implied by the phrase markings in the score, while the contrapuntal interplay of the Finale gained considerably from the driving intensity generated between soloist and orchestra. The central night music section of the Andante could have had a degree more flexibility in its scintillating forward motion, but the precision and delicacy of Kocsiss pianism held the attention throughout.
The concert closed with Stravinskys 1945 adaptation of The Firebird. Odd to think that this final reworking, intended as definitive, has fared poorly in the concert hall in comparison with the less comprehensive 1919 suite or more recently the complete 1910 ballet. But then, the composers recourse to a generally utilitarian re-scoring, and his ironing out of so much rhythmic and expressive subtlety in the music (as in his 1947 rethink of Petrushka) has in reality little to commend it. A pity for the choice of numbers is ideal and the telescoping between them judiciously made. Save for some untidiness of ensemble in the Infernal Dance, Oramo directed a fluent and attentive performance, its overall lack of impact simply the outcome of his following of the 1945 score to the letter. Worth reviving, but a similar selection from the original ballet would surely prove the ideal compromise.