Revelatory Bartók in Swansea

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rósza, Bartók, Arriaga, Mozart, Llŷr Williams (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Roberto Minczuk (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea 10.3.2012. (GPu)

Rósza, Three Hungarian Sketches Op14a
Bartók, Piano Concerto No.3
Arriaga, Overture to Los esclavos felices
Mozart, Symphony No.41 in C major, K551

This rather quirkily designed programme was advertised under the title ‘Hungarians Abroad’ – which applied, of course, only to the composers of the first two works; in fact, as that might suggest, the evening was rather like two short concerts following one after the other.

Rósza’s Three Hungarian Sketches are vivid reminiscences of his native Hungary, where he collected folk melodies as Bartók had done before him. Having left Hungary in the middle of the 1920s, Rósza’s three pieces (Capriccio, Pastorale and Danza) were initially written in 1938 for performance at the International Music Festival in Baden-Baden (unpropitiously) in April 1939. They were revised some twenty years later in 1958 (a year before Rósza wrote the score for Ben-Hur). All three pieces are orchestrally colourful, but not endowed with especially memorable themes. The opening Capriccio’s energy and quick rhythmic changes were handled with assurance by Roberto Minczuk and the orchestra, the alternations between near-ferocity and a gentleness that had a degree of rustic elegance were well handled. In the central Pastorale the attractive writing for the woodwinds and the lower strings was played engagingly, and in the closing Danza the work of the brass section had both vivacity and precision, while Minczuk’s direction of the orchestra controlled the rush to the final climax with nice judgement. As a showpiece for the considerable skills of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales this worked well, but it is hardly a work of any great substance, even if it was good to hear it on one of its relatively rare outings on the concert stage.

For all the talk of ‘Hungarians Abroad’, it was a very different world we entered when Llŷr Williams joined the orchestra as the soloist in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, written right at the end of the composer’s life in 1945. Indeed the final seventeen bars had to be completed by his friend Tibor Sérly from the composer’s sketches. More obviously than his two previous concertos, this third concerto is in direct line of descent from the great Classical and Romantic traditions. We were treated to a compelling performance by Llŷr Williams, well supported throughout by orchestra and conductor. Williams’ reading of the opening of the allegretto first movement was a model of lucidity, the (almost text-book) classical sonata form delineated with unpedantic clarity, the contrast between the firm rhythmic accents of the first theme and the more lyrical second theme beautifully articulated, and the poignant coda rendered exquisitely. Everything that Williams did was enhanced by the transparent orchestral textures which Minczuk elicited from the orchestra and the conductor’s sympathetic control of rhythm. The slow movement (marked Adagio religioso) got a performance of luminous and rapt intensity. The chorale-like writing for piano, in sustained legato chords, and orchestra at the opening of the movement was a thing of remarkable beauty, played with a magical sense of reverential stillness, and the central section of the movement, with its very Bartókian night music, was contrastingly full of a myriad small noises and movements evocative of insect and bird life, without there being any loss of that sense of the more than human to which Bartók himself would certainly not have applied the word God. Hungarian folk materials are more obviously to the fore in the final Allegro vivace, its themes altogether more angular and its use of the percussion more forceful, but its contrapuntal writing had, on this occasion, a quality of almost ecstatic joy, a proper balance to the other elements in a work which Andras Schiff once described as being ‘a wise man’s farewell’. This was an outstanding performance by all concerned.

The musical temperature was rather lower after the interval. Arriaga’s overture to his opera Los esclavos felices is a nicely turned piece, full of charm and energy. Roberto Minczuk knew the piece well enough to conduct it without a score, and he certainly made a good case for it in a reading full of lilting rhythms and well-timed section entries. It would have made a good opening to the evening, but after the profundities of the Bartók it seemed somewhat slight, for all its attractiveness.

There was nothing slight in the final work, Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. Roberto Minczuk’s direction of the work had a pleasing sense of scale and proportion, and a well judged orchestral balance. But the performance, as a whole, didn’t quite capture the depths of this remarkable symphony. The first movement lacked something as regards drama, its pauses and its irregular phrase lengths made to bear less weight than they can; the andante cantabile was beautifully played and phrased, though without quite doing full justice to what Neal Zaslaw has described as the movement’s “mysterious reverberations of unease”. There was much to admire, however, in the Minuet and Trio, with the falling chromatic theme of the Minuet stated with thoroughly delightful elegance, while there was a complementary earthiness in the Trio. In the final movement there was much that communicated the extraordinary formal inventiveness of Mozart’s writing, though perhaps a little less than did full justice to its dramatic expressiveness. This was a good performance, which it was a pleasure to hear, but was not, perhaps, one that will stay in the memory all that long.

But, overall, this was a concert whose quirkiness of programming made for consistently interesting listening and which, in the Bartók, was something like revelatory.

Glyn Pursglove