Ilan Volkov joins Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Folktone for Béla Bartók and Hungarian Folk Music with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Folk medley with Bartók extracts

Violin Concerto No.2, BB.117

Folk medley with Bartók extracts

Suite No.2, Op.4

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)


BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There was a fiery intent to this Prom, originally conceived with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Thomas Dausgaard, following from his similar investigation of the folk music roots of Sibelius’s music here two years ago.  The current pandemic meant that Dausgaard couldn’t get to the UK, so principal guest conductor, Ilan Volkov, stepped-in, following-on his own Prom on Thursday night.  I can’t imagine he’s conducted Bartók’s Second Suite before, but he kept to the original programme with the investigation into ‘Bartók Roots’ intact.

Fiery not only in intent but also in the thrilling playing of Proms debut soloist, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, matched by her red dress, typically rooted to the stage in bare feet.  With never less than total commitment, she headed a stirring and thought-provoking account of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto (as David Gutman’s ‘Previously at the Proms’ pointed out, when it was first performed at the Proms, in 1946, it was then Bartók’s only Violin Concerto, the first not discovered for another decade).  Kopatchinskaja can whirl like a demon, and turn on an instant to beguile with the softest tones and was more than a match for Bartók’s technical difficulties.  Her rapport with her fellow musicians is clearly evident, and her total involvement with the project to illustrate was demonstrable by her collaboration with Folktone, a UK-based Hungarian folk combo headed by CBSO violist Adam Römer. He also provided an introduction in the programme, particularly interesting in his descriptions of the instruments played.

Before both main works, Folktone offered original Hungarian folk melodies, which Volkov and (in the first half) Kopatchinskaja seamlessly integrated orchestral excerpts from the Concerto and the Suite.  The original melodies weren’t named, and the five or six used in each half were sometimes difficult to carry in one’s mind into the ensuing performance, but the point was well made.  It’s always great to hear the cimbalom, especially in János Kállai’s fleet-fingered virtuosity, but Tamás Frencz stole the show with his beaten gardon (a ‘pinch cello’), in a piece before the Suite, with more percussive slapping than actual pitches, ebbing and flowing with Römer’s violin pyrotechnics.  Bassist András Lovászi makes up the quartet.

Prommers wouldn’t allow Kopatchinskaja to go without an encore, but she had two surprises.  Announcing Ligeti’s Baladă și joc didn’t indicate that she would be joined by leader Laura Samuel in a veritable Hungarian hoedown of a duo; nor – on her repeated returns to the platform – that the two of them would be joined by the orchestra in Bartók’s Bagpipe Duo.  They brought the house down.

It has taken 107 years for Bartók’s Second Suite to follow his First Suite to the Proms (which was given its UK premiere at the Proms in 1914).  The orchestra, under Dausgaard, features it on their second CD of a projected complete Bartók cycle (ONYX4213), but it remains a rarity.  Which is a shame because, like Tchaikovsky’s Suites, it’s a substantial and enjoyable work.  From the harp strumming at the beginning (not unlike the start of the Second Violin Concerto) it leads, via the hectic almost demonic Scherzo and a longing Andante – with its aching bass clarinet solo (regrettably not individually listed in the programme) joined by string principals at the start – to the last-composed final movement, reflecting the early folk influences of Bartók’s first forays into collecting.  There isn’t a barn-storming ending, just a gentle, rustic cadence, Volkov creating a moment of silence before the applause.

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