Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók (1) [Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen – Kossuth … The Miraculous Mandarin]

Piano Concerto No.1
The Miraculous Mandarin

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 January, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThis concert marked the beginning of “Infernal Dance”, a substantial series of concerts that focuses on the music of Béla Bartók which will take in a number of chamber and instrumental recitals (including the six string quartets with the Takács Quartet on two consecutive nights at the Queen Elizabeth Hall during October), and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in most of the Hungarian composer’s major orchestral works. Juxtaposed here were two seminal pieces from different stages of his maturity with one that effectively launched his composing career in earnest.

Although it was well received at its premiere in Budapest and later in Manchester (courtesy of Hans Richter’s association with the Hallé), Kossuth (1903) then had to wait over half-a-century for revival. Clearly Bartók outgrew this symphonic poem – as redolent of Liszt in its programmatic construction as of Richard Strauss in its lavish orchestration – almost as soon as he had completed it, yet its no-nonsense depiction of Hungary’s ill-fated stab at autonomy under the auspices of a dynamic leader deserves the occasional hearing. Salonen seemed a little disengaged in its initial stages, but the confrontation of Hungarian and Austrian motifs was vividly characterised and the closing funeral march (arranged for piano as a striking ‘anti-encore’) lacked little in fatalistic brooding. As a contribution to a genre which had by then passed its peak, Kossuth retains much that is of musical and historical interest.

Yefim Bronfman. Photograph: Dario Acosta The other two works are much better known as well as far more typical of the later composer. Works, also, that Salonen has given on numerous occasions with this orchestra and, in the case of Bartók’s piano concertos, with this particular pianist. An imposing if sometimes-unsubtle exponent of the First Piano Concerto (1926), Yefim Bronfman had the measure of the opening movement’s brusque dialogue between piano and an orchestra in which strings are allotted a largely supporting role, although the more-inward asides in the development and cumulative build-up of the reprise were efficient rather than probing. As ‘first among equals’ in the Andante, Bronfman melded into the music’s percussive sonorities and canonic woodwind-writing with admirable poise, securing a seamless transition into the finale. Here the attempt at an affirmative outcome failed to convince, but its vigorous resolve was never in doubt.

Time was (not so long ago) when a full rendition of The Miraculous Mandarin (1919) was a comparative rarity and, though the complete pantomime has not become as ubiquitous as, say, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, it is certainly now established as one of those dance-scores whose natural domain is in the concert-hall. Without entirely solving problems of clarity in its (intentionally!) chaotic opening street scene, Salonen projected the music with no mean force and then found a viable balance between narrative and evocation in the depiction of the clients and their interplay with the prostitute. The arrival of the Mandarin felt less than earth-shattering, but the ensuing process of arousal had the right degree of rhythmic suppleness as it intensified towards the climactic chase sequence (animated rather than remorseless) and the lengthy decrescendo of activity encompassing the repeated attempts to murder the Mandarin and his final demise. Here the discreet organ entry was all-but-inaudible, though the vocalise that underscores the Mandarin’s death was atmospherically taken by Philharmonia Voices while the final bars had appropriate laconic bleakness. In short, a commendable start to this Bartók retrospective.

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