Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók (4) [Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen – Contrasts … The Wooden Prince … Dance Suite … Yefim Bronfman plays Piano Concerto No.2]

The Wooden Prince – Suite
Dance Suite
Piano Concerto No.2

Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin), Mark van de Wiel (clarinet) & Yefim Bronfman (piano) [Contrasts]

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

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

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThe re-ordering of works made for an unsatisfactory design. Contrasts had nothing to contrast with; an uneventful opener rather than a chamber-music distinction to follow the ballet suite and concerto. With Bartók himself as pianist, the work (1938) was composed for Joseph Szigeti and Benny Goodman (the latter’s style unerringly caught) – and recorded by them – its three movements respectively acerbic and Stravinsky-like laconic, then spare and deep-rooted in Hungarian soil, and folksy-rapid with some Gershwinesque car-tooting, Bartók anticipating his arrival in New York. Good performance, Yefim Bronfman discreet and the Philharmonia Orchestra principals responsive, both requiring two instruments for the finale; a mistuned violin and a B flat clarinet.

Yefim Bronfman. Photograph: Dario Acosta To end the concert – again, not the best place – Bronfman gave a technically formidable account of Piano Concerto No.2. But in the first movement his loudness often outgunned the woodwind and even the brass, and the latter was combative; Bartók’s writing is more collegiate than was suggested here. Bronfman did play quietly and inflect, but there was further to be yielded. The finale was too fast, enough to have its rhythms squeezed, and the closing bars started quickly enough to allow no acceleration; hustle and bustle signifying very little. The middle movement’s inner world (strings now present) was remarkably distant, and dissimilated with Bronfman’s fierce rhetoric, the scherzo interlude suitably spectral. But there’s more to this music than bullishness, punch and competition.

Now bookending the interval were the for-orchestra works. 1923 brought the 50th-anniversary of the unification of Buda, Óbuda and Pest – the middle city losing out in the gathering of names. Bartók’s celebratory piece was Dance Suite – dry, tangy, pungent, quicksilver, moonlit – the earthiness of the source matched by the sophistication of the setting, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia stamping with vitality and lingering with affection, plenty of paprika sprinkled into this richly flavoured goulash. The Wooden Prince (is it really Bartók’s only ballet-score for all that the danced The Miraculous Mandarin is termed a Pantomime?) was played in the more extensive of its two suites, if not as long as suggested in the programme. If it was the ‘usual’ 22 minutes or so, this was a stunning performance of Bartok’s extravagant orchestration (including saxophones, cornets and four harps) of music vivid, fantastical, shimmering and enchanted – pre-Disney! – the Philharmonia swaggering, suggestive (from somewhere deep in a forest to being airborne) and incandescently energetic, alive to humour and drama and at-one with Salonen, its choreographer par excellence.

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