Berlin Musikfest (3): Mid-20th Century Works Performed by the Great Concertebgouw

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GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2013 (3) Lutosławski, Bartók, Prokofiev: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam/Daniele Gatti (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 4.9.2013.


Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Dirigent: Daniele Gatti, Klavier: Yefim Bronfman, [(c) Kai Bienert,
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amstedam, Dirigent: Daniele Gatti, (c) Kai Bienert,

Lutosławski: Musique funèbre for Orchestra (1958)
Bartók: Piano concerto No. 3 (1945, rev. 1994)
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, Suite No. 1, Op. 64a, No. 2, Op. 64b (1935/36)


There are few who, having heard the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in concert, would disagree that they are one of the finest orchestras in the world. Under Milan born conductor Daniele Gatti they played their heart out in a magnificent
concert of three twentieth-century works all written just over twenty years apart.

Witold Lutosławski’s Musique funèbre for orchestra is a score only rarely encountered in concert hall programmes. However, back in May at the Dresden Music Festival I saw the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen perform the work so marvellously and here, in the centenary year of Lutosławski’s birth, the work is programmed again. Written for large string orchestra, the work was intended to mark the tenth anniversary of Béla Bartók’s death that fell in 1955 yet it wasn’t completed until 1958. This single movement score with four linked sections Prologue, Metamorphoses, Apogaum and Epilogue proves a tough challenge for even the finest orchestras. Under Gatti’s assured conducting the Concertgebouw strings with their highly resilient timbre created a dark and increasingly anguished soundworld that felt bitterly disconcerting. When required, the sheer force of string sound produced was astonishing and one wondered how much more intense sorrow could be endured. Then, an episode for an isolated solo cello was played by the principal until all emotional energy was exhausted and the unsettling music decayed away to nothing.

In truth I’ve never especially warmed to Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Unable to connect with any emotional content in the score, I find little in the way of redeeming features. Part of me wonders why anyone on a programme of twentieth-century works would play this when they could have say Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. A renowned pianist himself, Bartók wrote the work in 1945, during his difficult and rather unfulfilling exile in America, and just failed by a few measures to complete the score before his death, with his pupil Tibor Serly adding the finishing touches. Yefim Bronfman, the Grammy award winning Soviet-born Israeli-American pianist, is a committed Bartók interpreter having recorded all three concertos and has been regularly playing both the second and third concertos this year. Certainly Bronfman was in his element with this Bartók score, displaying his enviable technique and absolute rhythmic control. Not regarded as being technically demanding as the composer’s second Piano Concerto the resolute Bronfman was unfazed by the musical demands of the score providing thrilling playing of abundant vitality especially in the Finale: Allegro vivace. If any vindication was necessary for the selection of the Bartók score the Berlin audience cheered and cheered their approval and would not settle until they won an encore from Bronfman.

As if to make up for the paucity of melody in the first half, after the interval my reward was a performance of excerpts from Prokofiev’s marvellous ballet Romeo and Juliet. One of the crowning glories of classical music, Prokofiev wrote the score in the summer of 1935 not long after he had returned to live in the Soviet Union after exile in Europe and America nearly twenty years. In response to a commission from the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad for a full length ballet, Prokofiev looked to Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Romeo and Juliet’ which provided the ideal requirement for “light-serious” music and was in line with the ideals of his Soviet masters. Maestro Gatti selected a series of nine enticing and musically significant excerpts from the first and second ballet suites that the composer had prepared. I cannot recall any performance in the Philharmonie with an orchestra playing with such wide dynamics as the Concertgebouw. It wasn’t all crash and bang though; the orchestral colours that Gatti obtained from his players were as vivid as they were numerous. With so much to hold the attention my highlights included the dramatic opening in the ‘Montagues and Capulets’ which saw the brass and percussion combine to sparkling effect, suggesting the rivalry between the two warring families. The low reaches of the tuba and bass trombone started the famous march, the strings shone and the brass brayed proudly. Within all of this the breathy flute part is quite lovely and the saxophone is heard to significant effect. Gloriously deep the passion of the ‘Romeo and Juliet – balcony scene’ was given ravishing treatment with memorable playing from the cellos joined by the high strings. Certainly I haven’t heard a bolder, more sumptuous performance of the scene ‘Romeo and Juliet- before parting’ with everything sounding truly world-class. The concert was triumph for Maestro Gatti and the Concertgebouw.

Michael Cookson