Dances of Galánta
Piano Concerto No.1
A Faust Symphony
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Marco Jentzsch (tenor)
Men’s voices of London Philharmonic Choir & London Symphony Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Helen Pearce
Reviewed: 26 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The pairing of Kodály with his better-known compatriot and friend Bartók was an unsurprising line-up for the first’s half of the London Philharmonic’s Hungarian Prom. However, as the success of the curtain raiser confirmed, Kodály surely deserves more appreciation in his own right. Too often, he seems only to reach the concert platform as a starter or dessert to a main course of Bartók. Dances of Galánta, which demands technical virtuosity but also delicate shaping of its simpler folk-infused melodies, offered an ideal showcase for the LPO’s fine principal woodwinds. The flexibility of the orchestra’s string section was also much in evidence; the players, under Vladimir Jurowski, moved deftly between sensitive accompaniment of the wind solos and their own ebullient melodies.
In Bartók’s First Piano Concerto, the importance of the piano’s dialogue with the percussion was immediately reinforced by the orchestral layout; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was joined by four percussionists at the front of the stage. The longed-awaited surge of inspiration that Bartók experienced when composing this concerto in 1926 is palpable – the music drives forward with an inexhaustible rhythmic energy, maintained superbly by Bavouzet. Like Kodály, Bartók was a keen collector of Hungarian folk-music. Here, however, we find that influence absorbed into a darker Stravinskian soundworld dominated by stark timbres and mechanistic rhythms. From Bavouzet, the effect was mesmerising.
After the interval, a step back to the romantic excesses of the nineteenth-century: Liszt’s colossal A Faust Symphony. The LPO gave its all in the dramatic climaxes of the thirty-minute opening movement, but Liszt’s musical material still fell short of supporting its sprawling sonata-form structure. To reason, as many have, that the multitude of themes represent Faust’s restless character is surely too convenient an excuse for the work’s self-indulgence. Such extravagance feels more justified in the touching second movement, where yearning wind themes evoke the innocent young Gretchen. Tension grew as Mephistopheles’s third-movement scherzo gave way to the symphony’s choral apotheosis. A flick of Jurowski’s fingers prompted ominous timpani strokes while the male choristers rose to their feet. Their closing ‘Chorus Mysticus’, interweaved with a tenor solo sung by Marco Jentzsch, filled the Royal Albert Hall to great effect, although slight lapses in timing betrayed the short notice at which Jentzsch undertook this performance (he was replacing Christopher Ventris). This Prom stands as further testament to the musical rewards reaped from the partnership between the LPO and Jurowski. However, even their combined talents failed to convince of Liszt’s symphonic genius.