The Miraculous Mandarin
New Messages [UK première]
Ildikó Vékony (cimbalom) §
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 29 April, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
A concert which found the BBC Symphony Orchestra on sparkling form; freed from the shackles of convention in their new regular Barbican concert dress (black open-neck shirts and no jackets for the men, admittedly not much change for the ladies) and also with the luxury of a double extension to the stage.
This latter allowed much greater space in the Bartók pieces which began and ended the concert, given spectacularly iridescent performances, with individual instrumental timbres achieving fantastic clarity (the Dance Suite became something of a concerto for the bassoon section!). It also allowed reasonable space for the BBC Singers who contributed to Kurtág’s Messages and, wordlessly, to a triumphant performance of Miraculous Mandarin. Here music as violence hit home with the greatest force, showing Bartók’s final stagework for what it is: far, far more visceral even than Stravinsky’s earlier-composed Rite of Spring.
We were also treated to the new version of the score, with 30 original bars restored to the latter third of the work by Bartók’s son Peter. For something like three-quarters of a century cuts made in the music, because the scenario was too racy for censors, had been transmitted through various editions. It was Pierre Boulez who first performed the restored version with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester on its summer tour in 1999 (including at the Proms). Since then David Robertson has recorded the new edition.
But confusion still abounds, as there was absolutely no mention at all in the programme about even the existence of the new edition, and I can only be sure of my facts from seeing Zoltán Peskó swap from his pocket score of the suite (the first two thirds of the ballet, up to figure 75) to a new, ring-bound score for the ballet’s final part. The changes all occur in this final part – the first around figure 79. It’s difficult to hear the changes as the bars are almost invariably individual – it’s not a section lasting 30 bars, but single bars dotted throughout the remaining music. A shame it wasn’t known in advance as this was quite an important event (as far as I know only the second UK performance of the edition – [No, Boulez twice more, with the LSO – Ed!) – and it might have engendered a bigger audience. The ground floor of the Barbican was only about half full at my reckoning – 500 (albeit very enthusiastic) supporters, perhaps.
But despite the adrenaline-rush, the Bartók did not form the highlight of the concert. That accolade has to go to the diminutive, shadowy creations from his fellow-Hungarian composer, György Kurtág, who was represented by three works – the two sets of (continuing) Messages and the solo cimbalom work, Splinters. The latter title seems to typify much of Kurtág’s mercurial output, even his larger works are collections of smaller pieces, with many dedicated to friends. The two sets, so called here, cover some 12 pieces, and the second, New Messages, was treated to its UK première. In advance publicity and on the BBC website this was announced as a BBC co-commission, but again no mention was made of it in the programme on the night.
These are breathtakingly delicate pieces, despite the massive orchestra required (rarely, if ever, used together at one time), and are tiny in timeframe if not in portent. The first set includes a message (actually a letter) to Peter Eötvös, the conductor who premièred Messages, and the second set has a brittle scherzo for Zoltán Peskó, who premièred that set. The latter also includes an angry, bass-heavy, scherzo for Elmar Weingarten, who was at the time Intendant of the Berlin Philharmonic before being summarily discarded by out-going Claudio Abbado (if this was a leaving present, it is very odd!). The second set opens and closes with two versions of the same piece, inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” – the later orchestral version to start and the original string version to end, adding a cyclical feel to the wider work. Janáček is evoked, by name if not necessarily in soundworld, in the fourth of the new set, Les Adieux, where a distant string section was placed in the Barbican Hall’s circle to antiphonal effect.
Given their diminutive size, but large orchestral requirements, I can’t think of another organisation that could afford to programme these works. All credit to the BBC (as ever) and I hope that either a recording is released soon, or that there is an early repeat (regrettably not at the Proms, I see).
Separating the two sets of Messages was an intriguing early work, Kurtág’s solo cimbalom piece, Splinters (Op.6c). Transcribing two of his guitar pieces from Op.6, Kurtág composed two new pieces for the cimbalom set, then transcribed those four pieces for piano as Op 6d (seemingly Op.6b does not exist). Here Ildikó Vékony was the soloist, spotlit at the far left of the stage, and offered a veritable masterclass in the instrument’s capabilities, a rare chance to hear its unique timbres as opposed to its usual role in such works as Kodály’s Háry János, which Vékony has recorded on Ricordi CRMCD 358 162.
One other point (London Sinfonietta please, please note!): there was no need to clear either the orchestra or the stage for Vékony to perform this short work. With the main stage lights down, the audience easily focused on the solo work with none of the debilitating stage changes that often mar contemporary concerts.
Finally a word of tribute to Zoltán Peskó, not seen on these shores for a decade or so – (our editor remembers him taking over a Franz Welser-Möst LPO concert in the early 90s. Indeed – Berio, Haydn and Beethoven’s Pastoral; excellent! – Ed.) – and was here renewing contact with the BBCSO having recorded all of his teacher Goffredo Petrassi’s concertos for orchestra with it twenty or more years ago. Another message, a simple one – bring back Peskó soon.