Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók (2) [Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen – Cantata profana … Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta … The Rite of Spring]

Cantata profana
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
The Rite of Spring

Attila Fekete (tenor) & Michele Kalmandi (baritone)

Coro Gulbenkian

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: John-Pierre Joyce

Reviewed: 10 February, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThe Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen continued their exploration of Bartók’s musical world with performances of two of his most intriguing works.

“Cantata profana” (1930) is a rarity. The vast forces required make it an expensive investment for twenty minutes, but it makes a deep impression. Based on a Romanian ballad translated into Hungarian by Bartók himself, it tells of a hunter’s nine sons magically transformed into stags, and their integration into the natural world. Salonen pulled out all the stops with a performance of unbounded energy. The Coro Gulbenkian was rather female-heavy for its narration of a fable of father and sons, but the singers’ clear diction and folk-song inflections were wholly convincing; and an outstanding performance from Attila Fekete.

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is one of Bartók’s most neo-classical works, with its symmetrical structure, concerto grosso-like passages, and fugal writing. Salonen and the Philharmonia responded accordingly, with a trimly tailored performance. That said, it took some time for the arched first movement to reach its apex, and the downward curve slipped a little too quickly. The piano could have done with a little more brittleness during the second and final movements, although that may have had more to do with the Royal Festival Hall’s acoustics than with Elizabeth Burley’s playing. Elsewhere there was some superb playing, notably Andrew Smith on timpani.

In keeping with the “Infernal Dance” theme, Salonen adopted fast tempos, and emphasised rhythms, in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The folk elements in the score (which Stravinsky always denied) were also highlighted, particularly in the ‘Introduction’, with some brilliant playing from the woodwind players. Salonen’s Rite also took some risks, with quirky rasps on brass, and wayward clarinet bleats. Although the opening to Part Two sounded frayed, and ‘Evocation of the Ancestors’ unaccountably slowed down, the pace and performance picked up for a climactic conclusion.

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