tue 28/06/2022

Bronfman, Philharmonia, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Bronfman, Philharmonia, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall

Bronfman, Philharmonia, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall

Dazzling Finn's Bartók blends Wagnerian Romanticism and neon glitz

"You have to start somewhere," remarked Debussy drily at the 1910 premiere of young Stravinsky's Firebird ballet. Even so, that was far more of a somewhere than the ultra-nationalistic Hungarian tone poem Kossuth, first major orchestral flourish of Béla Bartók, the Russian's senior by one year. In choosing it to launch Infernal Dance, the Philharmonia's 2011 celebration not of Stravinsky (as the title weirdly implies) but Bartók, principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen showed how far his main Magyar travelled to works like the hyper-percussive First Piano Concerto and the ballet-pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin, a work strident and fresh enough to serve as potential soundtrack to the so-called life of a latter-day wreck like Anna Nicole Smith.

Yes, I know that's already been set as an opera by an Englishman. In fact Salonen, a master-composer of neon-lit orchestral works informed by his time with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, might do an even better job than Turnage, the Royal Opera's choice; and on the evidence of this sometimes quite literally stunning Mandarin, the lurid glitz of Salonen's own music might well have been drawn from the Hungarian Modernist as revealed in such a fresh light last night - half Wagnerian, half prospective Californian. On which note, I have to briefly digress if only to observe one of those extraordinary coincidences that only London throws up: there, over at the Barbican, was Salonen's successor in LA, Dudamel, the younger figure whom "the Phil" might well have snapped up, had it been quick enough. Recent events have been enough to confirm that Salonen was an even better choice: he's done the racy Modernism and remains a master balancer, but he now has a greater sense of line and structure.

If the second-half horrors had just been a matter of orchestral hit and run, I doubt if I'd have failed to notice the supertitles chronicling the action until we were halfway through the appearance of the ballet-pantomime's second victim. It was helpful to have them, given that we were being fed the full gestural score (Hungarian Ballet choreography pictured below) rather than the easier-to-follow suite. What was Menyhért Lengyel thinking of, and why, when in 1916 he drafted his grotesque scenario about a prostitute decoy, her three increasingly bizarre would-be clients and the thugs who assault them?

juratsek_nagyjr200It doesn't matter, because Bartók's crazed score goes way beyond graphic-novel-style Expressionism, at least as Salonen played it. Sure enough, the strings flamed right at the start of the opening street scene, but it was soon billowing heftily like a Wagnerian apotheosis, and the touches of love-death between the, ahem, weirdo "Eastern gentleman" who won't die and the girl who eventually lets him do so with a tender embrace speak direct, Tristanesque volumes, albeit minus the redemption. Salonen conjured pure stagecraft, given the complicity of a silent Festival Hall audience, out of each set-up for the girl's decoy dances, conveyed with mounting thrills by the Philharmonia's superb principal clarinettist, Mark van de Wiel (he'll be taking centre stage in the late chamber work Bartók wrote for Benny Goodman, Contrasts, in October). The Philharmonia voices' oscillating unisons provided much-needed focus in the Mandarin's undead mime - though it would have been good to have an eerie green light cast on them - while harp, piano and celesta cut like a knife, oddly enough, in the glittering central homage to Salome's dance.

I couldn't hear as much Strauss as advertised (and expected) in the 22-year-old Bartók's Kossuth: the odd flare-up in the woodwind of the nasty critic adversaries from Ein Heldenleben, which the young composer transcribed for piano, and a bit of horn-lining, perhaps, but none of the sumptuousness of Also sprach Zarathustra, the score which persuaded Bartók to stick seriously to composing. In fact the tone poem stands in relation to the rest of his work, much as does the equally lumbering, brass-heavy and fitfully striking Macbeth in Strauss's output.

Kossuth was a would-be Garibaldi, lost to the Hungarian cause after the events of 1849; Bartók hero-worships him with mostly thick orchestral textures that Salonen was careful to emphasise as rough and ready, a kind of wild halfway house between Attila the Hun and the harshness of the present regime which would so have horrified the composer. The tone poem's stop-start storytelling constantly fails to deliver what it promises, though there's fun to be had from the brass blaring out, eventually in whole-tone creepiness, the Austrian anthem.

If that was what it took to spotlight the blatant individualism coursing through the First Piano Concerto of 1926, then so be it. Though Yefim Bronfman is such a seriously musical heavyweight pianist, with no hollow rhetoric or superficial raciness about him, that the ties with the best of the Romantic tradition, chiefly the Rachmaninov concertos, came surprisingly to the fore. Salonen, too, would once have rushed and dazzled, but last night floated all the surprising little Neo-Classical gestures in the midst of this piano-and-orchestra Rite with due elegance. No doubt about it, though, Stravinsky's influence has the upper hand - though even he would not have dreamt of the percussion-tapping rule of three in the stripped-to-the-bone middle movement. I can't wait to hear what Bronfman does with the other two concertos in the series, a welcome constant. I can't see why such self-selecting concerts need two expert "series consultants" to shape them, but no doubt much has been going on around the main events, and will continue to do so as further riches unfold.

Watch Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting and talking about Bartók

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