Outstanding Bartok Performances from Peter Eotvos and LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartok, Szymanowski: Nikolai Znaider (violin), Steve Davislim (tenor), London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Peter Eotvos (conductor), Barbican Hall, London 8.5.2012 (GD).

Bartok Music for strings, Percussion and Celeste
Bartok Violin Concerto No. 2
Szymanowski Symphony No.3 (‘Song of the Night’)

It has become fashionable lately to treat the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste as a virtuoso piece, even a kind of show case for showing off a brilliant string section with whip-lash percussion, even by some very eminent conductors, whose names I will not mention. The recording by Fritz Reiner (who knew Bartok well) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the late fifties was much admired when it was released, and is still admired for its meticulous reading/projection of Bartok’s score. Tonight Peter Eotvos, who was replacing the indisposed Pierre Boulez, came the nearest I have heard to Reiner not just in terms of meticulous adherence to the letter of the score, but the way in which he caught Bartok’s unique sound world. From the opening chromatic fugue theme in the violas marked ‘con sordini’ I was struck by the way Eotvos somehow managed to convey the contour of this movement (even the whole work). It was not just his phrasing, which produced playing of the utmost finesse, it was the way he structured each subsequent entry beginning with violins, and gradually bringing the two orchestral groups together in ever more intricately interwoven counterpoint. These entries move up and down in fifths towards the climax which reaches its maximum harmonic distance from the beginning (from A to E) which it winds back to. The climax itself was as powerful and shattering as could be imagined, but it was not just due to increased volume (loudness). This climax was perfectly timed and developed from within the inner structure of the music, not from without – as happens in more meretricious performances. Eotvos took a slightly more measured tempo than the score’s Andante tranquillo’, but his sense of line, movement was so intensely ‘felt’ that the measure of mere clock-time became inconsequential.

The second movement begins with a speeded up.version of the main first movement theme, which here becomes a sonata allegro in C. The timpani are more prominent here, but they should not dominate and become something akin to a timpani concerto. Indeed the amazing effect of the timpani and other percussion instruments is achieved through exact timing, rhythmic precision and structural integration with the other tonal registers. Eotvos had obviously rehearsed the LSO well. The timpanist Nigel Thomas deployed at least four sticks, felt and wooden heads, for the amazing timpani percussion work in the movement’s middle section with its harmonic/tonal irregularities, producing a sound-scape of micro-spectral tones. Eotvos trenchantly brought together the oppositional arguments from each of the two string groups set off against each other in bold, decidedly un-fugal antiphonies.Yet he showed by inter-thematic articulation that their second phrase is closely related again to the first movement’s fugal subject.. The third movement is probably the finest embodiment of of what is often called Bartok’s ‘night music’ style, although it could be argued that music of such tonal and textual complexity cannot be simply reduced to a nocturnal mood. Perhaps it would be more apt to invoke Raymond Chandler’s ‘The streets were dark with something more than night’. Tonight Eotvos realised each tone, each shimmer and contrast with absolute integrity. All the special colour-effects were there; the soft dissonant note-clusters on muted strings; whispering glissandos on harp, piano and celesta simultaneously were vividly projected but always integrated within the whole musical design, never becoming mere effects. Likewise all the ‘regularly irregular’ folk-dance rhythms of the last movement made their full effect. Eotvos wonderfully captured the final contrast between the culminating return of the fugal theme with its melodic intervals and the final unespectedly affirmative C major coda.

Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto, along the violin concertos of Berg and Schoenberg, is certainly the most important violin concerto of the 20th Century. The concerto takes the traditional form of three movements, with the second a slower (andante) a more lyrical contrast to the outer, more dynamic movements. It also begins quite traditionally in B major. As has been noted, this B major opening in the old Phrygian mode, with a strong Hungarian colour, especially in the first violin entry, does not last long and gives way to latent instabilities. Harmonic ease is shattered by ascending, descending chromatic scales, with sharp dissonances in brass chords. By the time we arrive at the movement’s second subject we are in a tone-scape which encompasses a justaposing twelve tone sequence in which the soloist moves both in and out of an interwoven musical tapestry. Perhaps Nikolai Znaider lacked the tonal finesse of a Mullova, or a Gil Shaham, but his tonal largesse with an occasional note of coarseness suited the music well, especially in the well integrated first movement cadenza. In fact, his playing sometimes reminded me of the big toned Hungarian violinist Zoltan Szekely for whom the concerto was composed. Szekely gave the first performance in Amsterdam in March 1939, at which the conductor was the legendary Willem Mengelberg with his Concertgebouw Orchestra. Later conductors (including the conductor originally scheduled for this performance, Pierre Boulez), have given much more nuanced, integrated accounts. But nobody has made the orchestral part more colourful and dramatic than Mengelberg, who sounds vivid even in a restricted recording of that premiere. Tonight Eovos recaptured some of that orchestral vividness, while at the same time, like Mengelberg, always securing a rapport and dialogue with the soloist. All the way through Eotvos revealed the uniqueness of Bartok’s orchestration: the pp shifts into bitonal ambiguity; the almost eerie sounding tremelandos in the celli and basses; the array of canonic writing for the full brass section towards the third movement coda, given a superb rhythmic ‘lift’ by Eotvos. The free variation form second movement with its concertante wrting for high woodwind, celesta, percussion and harp, with the soloist sometimes taking the lead, other times playing as part of the concertante group, was impressively delivered with soloist and orchestra playing in total accord. The scherzando section towards the end of the movement was executed with fascinating accuracy, both in tonal resonance and mood. Played like this it almost sounded like a ‘concerto for orchestra’ with violin? This is not such an implausible idea given that Bartok composed the greatest ever concerto for orchestra! The third movement finale, with all its transformations of the opening movement’s themes and virtuoso writing for percussion woodwind and brass came across as a miracle of concerto variation and contrast. Surprisingly Eotvos deployed non-antiphonal violins, but to quibble too much about this would seem churlish in view of the general excellence of all involved in this inspired performance. As implied above, the LSO responded superbly to Eitvos’s every nuance. I have not heard such excellent playing from them since the days of Kertesz and Dorati – two more Hungarians!

Pierre Boulez has recently made a CD recording of music by Szymanowski, including the Third Symphony. As with the music of Janaček, Boulez has come to Szymanowski late in his career. I suppose one possible reason for this is that Szymanowski’s music brings together the French influences of Debussy and Ravel in particular, but I can’t see/hear a great deal in Szymanowski’s music which is not derivative of other composers, Scriabin being another obvious example. The ballet score ‘Harnasie’, the First Violin Concerto and parts of his opera ‘King Roger’, all have some quite nice touches, but compared with Bartok this is music which basically looks back, rather than forward. The Third Symphony entitled ‘Song of the Night is based on a quasi mystical/erotic poem from Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi, the famed Persian Sufi poet. The poem text, which speaks of the the mysteries of night, sleep, the soul and God, was well delivered by tenor Steve Davislim. Eotvos and the LSO attended meticulously to every lush harmony and shimmering tone and the LSO Chorus sung well in the wordless choral parts. All this was most enjoyable, but if I want lush, sensious orchestral sonorities I would rather go to the composers this music largely derives from: Debussy, Ravel, with some Scriabin. Having said this I know there are many Szymanowski fans who would strongly disagree with me, and overall this was a superb and memorable concert.

Geoff Diggines.