LSO/Kristjan Järvi with Theodosii Spassov, Vlatko Stafanovski & Miroslav Tadić – Balkan Fever

Dances of Galánta
Variations on a Hungarian Folksong ‘The Peacock’
Romanian Rhapsody No.1, Op.11
Jacques Press
Hasseneh – Wedding Dance

Arrangements by Theodosii Spassov

Theodosii Spassov (kaval) and Vlatko Stafanovski & Miroslav Tadić (guitars)

London Symphony Orchestra
Kristjan Järvi

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 January, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Kristjan Järvi. Photograph: Peter RigaudKristjan Järvi’s concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra have often emphasised the relationship between music for the concert hall and that with its basis in overtly indigenous sources. So it proved here with “Balkan Fever”, combining orchestral music by composers from Hungary and Romania with that featuring Bulgaria’s most-celebrated jazz musician.

The gradual incorporation of Bartók’s orchestral music into the repertoire has perhaps facilitated the eclipse of Kodály’s not inconsiderable output. Certainly Dances of Galánta (1933) has only latterly begun to regain the status it enjoyed half-a-century ago, and while this extended rondo on themes from the eponymous district in Hungary is more impressive during the earlier stages – its eloquent clarinet theme the basis for accumulative alternation of slow (lassú) and fast (friss) episodes – than in the hectic accumulation of energy towards the close, the LSO was unstinting in its response to Järvi’s bracing direction; not least in the coda with its sudden repose then uninhibited dash to the close.

Even so, it was the Peacock Variations (1939) that provided the more memorable listening. Written at a time when Hungary’s alliance with the Axis powers was all but inevitable, the theme’s intimation of freedom could not have been more timely: Kodály embodies this in a substantial sequence which reaches its culmination in the series of three slow variations that draw an unexpectedly plangent quality from the theme, made more acute by the sonorous textures which confirm an easily overlooked orchestral mastery. Culminating in a chorale-like apotheosis and then a finale of irresistible verve, this is a work that ought to be heard much more often – not least when rendered with the degree of commitment evident here.

While one would hesitate to say that Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody (1901) is not deserving of frequent revival, it is a pity that this piece continues to represent the composer’s orchestral music to the general listener when his symphonies and suites go almost unheard. That said, the present work is no mere potpourri and Järvi underlined its panache without descending into vulgarity. Perhaps the initial half was a little too inflected in terms of rubato, but its effervescent successor duly cast a bewitching spell – and the LSO (which made a memorable recording of the piece with André Previn some four decades ago) gave its collective all in music which rarely, if ever, fails to bring the house down.

After a breezy ‘Wedding Dance’ from the symphonic suite Hasseneh by Georgian-born American film composer Jacques Press, the second half was devoted to arrangements by Theodosii Spassov – whose mastery of the kaval, a chromatic end-blown flute familiar across Anatolia and the Balkans, was enhanced by the scintillating (and symbiotic) guitar playing of duo Vlatko Stafanovski and MiroslavTadić. Commencing with the visceral three-way work-out of ‘Iovka Kumanovka’, they continued with the evocative strains of ‘Strange Occasion’ and the martial impetus of ‘Say Bob’. The syncopated verve of ‘Eleno’ made way for the sensuous elegance of ‘Kite’, while the accumulating energy of ‘Yunes Emre’ was an admirable foil to the ritualistic unfolding of ‘Scherzo’. The main sequence was brought to an uproarious close by the high impact of ‘Fire-Feast’, with a spectacular contribution from percussion (the flexatone accorded its moment in the spotlight), but the music-making continued with a trio of encores and the three soloists went on to give a post-concert Aftershock on the club stage (constructed when needed in the Level -1 foyer area).

If there was one proviso to be made here, it was the not unfamiliar one that the orchestral contribution, for all its relative integration with the folk musicians, could seem a little superfluous in intent – the strings, in particular, often having little more to do than complement the soloists with a chordal accompaniment such as took the edge off the astringency of the latter’s music-making more often than it opened-out the music’s expressive ambience; though this was much less the case with the wind and percussion, who added pungency and colour to the Spassov’s often-improvisatory take on traditional sources. As a coming together of Eastern authenticity and Western sophistication, it made for an undeniably heady listen.

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