Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók (3) [Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen – Concerto for Orchestra … Christian Tetzlaff plays Violin Concerto No.2 … Dances of Galánta]

Dances of Galánta
Violin Concerto No.2
Concerto for Orchestra

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 June, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s Infernal Dance series centred on the music of Bartók continued with two later masterpieces, prefaced by a work which has recently regained at least some of its mid-twentieth century popularity. Unlike his compatriot, Zoltán Kodály largely abandoned Classical instrumental form after World War I – his subsequent orchestral works tending to be resourceful sequences of dances. Not least Dances of Galánta (1933), its material is derived from the verbunkos music found in the vicinity of that town (now in Slovakia) where the composer spent his earliest years. Populist in outlook the piece may be but Kodály is mindful to shape its content no less intently than would have Bartók, a suave introduction – clarinet immediately making its concertante role felt – leading to a sonata-rondo unfolding of dances whose momentum is carried over into a coda whose sudden introspection is swiftly countered by the uproarious final bars. Esa-Pekka Salonen might have indulged the music a little more, but its overall progress toward ever greater rhythmic vitality was never in doubt.

Otherwise, it was Bartók all the way. The Second Violin Concerto (1938) has all but regained its status as the pre-eminent such work of its era, harnessing its direct melodic appeal to a structure which is cohesive even by the rigorous standards of the mature composer, and there was no doubting Christian Tetzlaff’s command over both its formal and expressive facets. That said, this performance was less satisfying than that which he gave of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto earlier this season: the opening Allegro, in particular, could have done with greater flexibility to open-out its intensive thematic interplay and while Tetzlaff’s rhythmic definition was unfaltering, the music seemed over-tense during in its more reflective passages. No such cavils in the Variations of the second movement, in which Bartók’s fastidious scoring was equally well delineated by Salonen (the closing recall of the Theme could have been even more evocative though), then the finale’s inventive reconfiguring of the first movement was bracingly rendered. A pity that the performers opted for Bartók’s original ending – where the soloist is allotted only an observational role; Salonen did likewise in his recording with Viktoria Mullova some years ago, so it may have been his initiative, but this is one instance where the composer’s second thoughts are a decisive improvement. Tetzlaff was inscrutable throughout, regaining the limelight with an artless rendering of unaccompanied Bach as an encore.

From here to the Concerto for Orchestra (1943) is no great step conceptually, not least in that one of the most symphonic of concertos should have been followed by one of the most symphonic of non-symphonies. Salonen might have made more of this play on expectations – without which the contrast between themes and moods in ‘Introduzione’ was a little too great for the movement to cohere, while the procession of instrumental duos in the ‘Giuco delle coppie’ could have had greater humour (and its chorale-like trio greater poise). Similarly, emotional peaks in ‘Elegia’ were incisive rather than heartfelt (good that Salonen ran the last three movements together though), while ‘Intermezzo interrotto’ emerged as a resourceful bag of tricks rather than an ironic perspective on stylistic fashion. Secure in ensemble, the Philharmonia then raised its game in ‘Finale’ – driving home Bartók’s alternation of folk-inflected melody and fugal dexterity with evident resolve. Not an incandescent performance, but one reaffirming the status of this work as a showpiece with substance that has few equals.

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