Violinist Tetzlaff impresses at Philharmonia’s Bartók and Kodaly concert

Kodaly and Bartók: Christian Tetzlaff (solo violin), Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.6.2011 (CG)

Kodály: Dances from Galanta (1933)
Bartók: Violin Concerto no 2 (1937-8)
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

This concert was part of an ambitious series entitled “Infernal Dance,” celebrating the work of Béla Bartók, 1881-1945. The series features major and minor works from the various phases of Bartók’s career, as well as a few by his contemporaries, and the concerts take place not only in London venues, but also in Cardiff, Basingstoke, and Birmingham. Several concerts are taking place in mainland Europe too. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra, who are joined by soloists in Bartók’s concertos, and singers in the vocal and choral works. Some of the concerts are also devoted to his chamber music.

A great deal of preparation lies behind this series. A generous brochure includes detailed and intelligently argued articles concerning Bartók’s life and works, and includes lots of telling photographs of the great man. The presentation is faultless, and one learns a great deal by reading it thoroughly.

Of all Bartók’s contemporaries, none was closer to him than Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967). The two shared a common love of Hungarian folksong, were lifelong friends, and strong advocates of each other’s music. So it was entirely appropriate that the vivid Dances from Galanta was the first work to be heard tonight.

Political boundaries have changed frequently in that part of the world – I was once told of a woman who had lived in the same house for 90 years, but that her passport had changed nine times! Nowadays, Galanta is in Slovakia; in 1933 it was in Hungary. The traditional music of Galanta is essentially a kind of gypsy music and it is crucially important that this be recognised in any successful performance of Kodály’s “Dances,” with their abrupt contrasts of tempo and scoring. He uses the clarinet to imitate the more primitive tárogáto, a Hungarian reed instrument noted for its strident tone, and Marc van de Wiel, tonight’s principal clarinettist, certainly understood this. The whole performance was thoroughly idiomatic, with the conductor managing the many tempo changes superbly well. And what a wonderfully warm string tone the Philharmonia produces when called upon to do so!

I have a special fondness for Bartók’s 2nd Violin Concerto. As a young lad of 13, it became the first “contemporary” piece that I took a shine to. Though hardly “contemporary” now, of course, it’s worth remembering that Bartók pioneered a special kind of dissonant music that earned him a reputation of being a major enfant terrible. Innumerable composers fell under his influence – but none managed the combination of folk elements and dissonance in Bartók’s highly personal way. This concerto can fall to bits in the wrong hands. It is so very episodic; again, as in the Kodály, various aspects of “folksiness” are explored, ranging from the richly intense melody with which the work commences to plenty of passages of pure skittishness, but there’s a lot more to it than all this. It is a sublimely beautiful work for much of the time, as well as strangely mysterious in the slow movement, terrifically exciting in the faster, more dramatic sections, and all the while the violin part is ferociously difficult! There are also all manner of traps for both soloist and conductor, and there’s another curious aspect to performing the work: if the violinist plays in too aggressive a “gypsy” way, somehow it just doesn’t work, so an effective performance involves finding a happy medium between “folk” and, well, romantic/classical. With all this in mind, when I am about to hear a violinist new to me, I do feel distinctly nervous…

I need not have worried. Christian Tetzlaff was simply outstanding – what an utterly superb musician! I could go into raptures. An enormously big, big tone when needed, an equally fabulous lightness of touch for the more active passages, and throughout a complete understanding of Bartók’s intentions. Moreover, the partnership with Salonen seemed completely immaculate. There were never any balance problems at all, the orchestra accompanying when it was supposed to and shining brightly when let off the leash. There were details of scoring I’ve never quite noticed so clearly – and the brass were absolutely thrilling towards the end.

When all was over, we were treated to some exquisite unaccompanied Bach from Tetslaff; and for once the encore felt appropriate.

This was a hard act to follow, and if the comparatively mild but ever popular Concerto for Orchestra never quite reached the dizzying heights of the Violin Concerto, it was still a completely enjoyable and altogether excellent performance. The strings at the beginning have never been more hushed, the quotes from Shostakovich never funnier., and the woodwinds sparkled whenever they had solos. Salonen can appear a little dispassionate and cool at times, but he’s always authoritative, and with his clear gestures and well-judged tempi, the Philharmonia plays with terrific precision, as well as producing great waves of pure passion. As I’ve noted before, the London orchestras are all on top form at the moment, and none more so than the Philharmonia. I can’t wait for other concerts in this fascinating series.

Christopher Gunning