Prom 15 – Idiomatic piano playing from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in Hungarian concert.

 Kodaly, Bartok, Liszt:  Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London. 26.7.20 11 (GD)

Kodály: Dances of Galanta

Bartòk: Piano Concerto No.1

Liszt: A Faust Symphony

There was a well realised Hungarian theme running throught this Prom. Kodály’s Dances of Galanta incorporate folk/dance themes from the small Hungarian market town of that name. They combine the form of the classical rondo with that of the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Franz Liszt. The use of the rondo form here consists of contrasts between sustained lyrical/melodic sections, as in the opening theme, and more vigorous and dramatic passages based on rhythmically charged folk material. Tonight’s performance opened well with some finely articulated string playing. Initially I heard a slightly off key horn entry which soon rectified itself. Jurowski tended to speed up in the dance sections, making them sound very exciting at the expense of an overall coherent line which older conductors like Dorati, and more recently Ivan Fischer, with his excellent Budapest Festival Orchestra, bring off superbly. The LPO played well, but I missed the grainy, trenchant sound of the Budapest orchestra.

The Bartòk concerto was mostly a success. Bavouzet is well schooled in this music and realizes the importance of the basic melodic cell with which the concerto opens and which forms the material for much of the composition. The first movement’s combinations of strong rhythmic ostinato passages, together with Bach-like contrapuntal ideas and contrasting lyricism were all managed with great musicality and understanding. Bavouzet and Jurowski worked together in total accord…….essential in this and many other concerti. I was glad to see the composer’s original instructions regarding the orchestral percussion surrounding the soloist being faithfully observed tonight. The Andante, as one of Bartòk’s ‘nocturnal’ soundscapes, beginning with solo piano and percussion (here, Bartòk reminding us the the piano is also basically a percussion instrument) was well paced tonight, the central processional build-up with added plangent woodwinds sounding particularly compelling. I would have welcomed a more grotesque sound in the glissandi trombones which herald the E minor finale. Also, Bavouzet’s playing could have been more elemental in the Bartòkian ‘Allegro barbaro’ sense. But he mostly made up for this with playing of wonderful finesse, and a total structural understanding of the score. Bartòk tells us the finale is in E minor but it turns out to be a very clouded E minor. A semblance of E minor? However the finale, which includes a quasi variation section, ends resoundingly and decisively in the major. Overall a memorable and fresh Bartòk experience which made its mark despite the cavernous acoustic of the Albert Hall.

As an encore to the first part of the Prom Bavouzet gave us a suitably poetic and sustained rendition of ‘Invocation’ from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses – again in perfect keeping with the Hungarian themes of the Prom.

Liszt’s A Faust Symphony is arguably his finest orchestral work. As a character study of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles Liszt’s work is more Romantic in its musical rhetoric. The long first movement intoning the complex character of Faust emphasises Faust’s restless questing. But if we read Goethe’s Faust (Liszt’s main inspiration) we are surprised at how little Faust actually does in the way of action, deeds. He seems, in his dialogues with Mephistopheles, a more metaphysically introspective character. Similarly, in the second ‘Gretchen’ movement, Liszt seems to be concentrating on romantic love, with Gretchen plucking petals from a flower, murmuring ‘He loves me, he loves me not’….. In reality Goethe’s epic portrays the relationship between Gretchen and Faust as anything but Romantic or sentimental. She is betrayed and seduced by Faust, and vilified, brutalised, imprisoned by her brother and the other inhabitants of her village. The last movement’s portrayal of Mephistopheles is more in line with Goethe in its relentless scherzo-like grotesque energy. But it is a little difficult to know how exactly music can portray the ‘Ironico’ Liszt asks for. But if we listen to Beecham’s classic recording of the work we certainly hear that demonic irony at work, although it is difficult to describe in words, or in musical examples.

Jurowski’s opening promised well. The theme on violas and cellos represents the mystical and magical side of Faust’s nature. But more importantly, in terms of musical history, it consists of four broken augmented triads, and thus contains all the twelve notes of the chromatic scale – all this nearly seventy years before Schoenberg! The dramatic lead into the main Allegro, with its whip-lash chords on the strings, was a little understated. Perhaps it was the result of Jurowski’s seeming inability to establish a firm tempo or musical line here. It was quite a swift tempo and occasionally some clarity, especially in the wild violin figurations, was lost. Also the trumpets here were peculiarly recessed. The Faust movement certainly contained some exciting moments, as in the C major fanfares heralded by the trumpets, depicting Faust’s proactive, virile and combative side. And the middle ‘Lento’ section, with woodwind and horns in conversation with an undulating violin figure, was well articulated and played. Especial compliments are due here to the LPO’s principal bassoon player. The return to first dramatic C minor Allegro, with a strigendo build-up and with added force and drama, was again a little under-powered. Liszt here is quite specific; his score is full of ‘con fuoco’, ‘agitato’ ‘sforzato’markings. Although Jurowski conjured some exciting moments, he seemed unable to encompass the movement as a whole, to imbue it with its strange and at times awe-inspiring and contrasted dramatic power and ferocity.

The second ‘Gretchen’ movement came off with more of a sense of line and engagement than the in the preceding movement. The poetic, song-like ‘dolce amoroso’ in horns and woodwinds were delivered with eloquent phrasing and nicely judged rubato. And the Faust theme, in its ‘amorous’ form, played pianissimo by the full orchestra – a magical moment – was well realised. But overall I missed the sustained pp, ‘molto legato’ Liszt asks for in much of this movement, also the delicate contrasts he constructs between pp, ppp and m/f. At times every thing tonight although well played, seemed to be on the same dynamic level, Perhaps such music really needs a conductor like Beecham, or the underrated, but great, Janos Ferencsik.

It was a touch of brilliance on Liszt’s part to parody the Faust themes in the Mephistopheles movement. Mephistopheles as the spirit of negation – ‘der Geist, der stets verneint’ – cannot create. The Devil (Mephistopheles) can only destroy what others have built up. But in some ways, with all it’s parodistic orchestral virtuosity, and quasi-references to, among others, Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain‘ this movement had me thinking of the old saying that ‘the devil has all the best tunes’! In its rhythmic exactitude and diversity this movement is the most technically challenging for any conductor So how did Jurowski score here? How did he and the orchestra manage the Faustian theme now in upward chromatic scales, then transformed into 6/8 from the 4/4 of the first movement? In technical terms this was all executed well, with varying degrees of clear orchestral balance. But it was in the tricky transitions, for instance in the mid-movement sudden change of gear (rhythm, metre) into the grotesque fugue, where Jurowski was less convincing. Again, although comparisons are ‘odious’, I can’t help thinking of the mastery of a Beecham, or a Ferencsik here. And more recently Ivan Fischer and his superb Budapest Festival Orchestra.

The transition into the final ‘Chorus mysticus’, from Goethe’s epic, with its chromatically descending chords, was well managed, as was the chorus itself, which praises the transcedence of the ‘Eternal Feminine’ (‘Das Ewig-Weibliche’). And the tenor Marco Jentzch sang in an appropriately radiant tone. Initially he was a fraction out of time with the chorus and orchestra. But this was no doubt due to the fact that he replaced an indisposed Christopher Ventris at very short notice. The exultant coda, although not quite reaching the transcendental heights of Goethe’s, or Liszt’s visions, concluded a Prom which despite the above noted reservations, was interesting, not least in its skillful programming, and in the superbly idiomatic piano playing of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

Geoff Diggines