Kodaly-Grieg-Dvorak Concert Fails to Excite

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Kodaly, Greig, Dvorak: Rudolf Buchbinder (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Andres Orozco-Estrada (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 29.1.2014. (GD)

Kodaly: Dances of Galanta
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
Dvorak: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op.70


Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta are by no means over-played in concert. The earlier, but equally engaging, Marosszek Dances are played even less. The opening Lento of the Galanta Dances with its long sustained melodic line in celli was  impressively delivered, as were the following clarinet cadenza, which is based on the opening theme but plays some additional folk contours and melodies. In fact Kodaly throughout the work  drew on gypsy melodies and rhythms from the village of Galanta which held a deep and personal meaning for him  Galanta (in northern Hungary, now Slovakia) was the place where he had grown up.  In the original score he asks for the traditional tarogato single-reed clarinet which produces a more cutting, grainy tone than its modern counterpart. We didn’t get to hear this tonight but the LPO clarinettist phrased the part well –  not too smooth and suave. The two dynamic dances which emerge from  clarinet and flute cadenzas are full of spikey cross-rhythms and ‘elusive harmonics’, with plenty of off key allusions snatched up by the sheer vigour and ranges of the tutti dances.

 Although Orzoco-Estrada managed the opening well I didn’t always feel had fully grasped the expressive and dynamic range of the dances themselves. Overall he tended to treat them as orchestral show-pieces, which they are not. Also, and throughout the concert, the conductor highlighted particular instruments, especially the horns and brass in general. This can initially  sound quite exciting but after a while it just sounds contrived and tiresome, and Kodaly, in the score, certainly does not ask for such instrumental foregrounding. When I arrived home I put on the old Dorati recording and instantly heard what was so lacking tonight. With Dorati there is a certain grainy, even rough tone, and he knows the rhythmic contrasts and inflections in these dances as well as anyone. But Dorati also brings out the gypsy inspired orchestral clarity without ever foregrounding a particular instrument. Also he never whips up the music for effect, as did Orozco-Estrada tonight, sounding totally out of tune with the gypsy soundscape so compellingly conveyed by Kodaly and Dorati.  Just before the brilliant coda when it was quite obvious the movement had not yet ended several members of the audience began clapping which sounded embarrassingly intrusive.

 Why the Grieg Piano Concerto? This is not to deny its charming merits, but today one expects more imaginative programming. In a concert consisting of two diverse masterpieces from Eastern Europe,  would it not have been more consistent and informative to have included, say, one of Bartok’s superb piano concertos or one of the unique concerti of Martinu? The Grieg concerto is quite frequently played in the London concert scene and in Europe and the US, usually at Sunday afternoon matinees which include other popular classics.  After the drumroll flourish which opens the concerto I thought the simple plaintive quasi march-like opening theme on woodwind a tad perfunctory. The theme is suggestive of ballet music and needs more charm and elegance. I kept thinking of the old Rubinstein recording with again Dorati. What a contrast in terms of phrasing and lilt one heard from Dorati!  Mostly Buchbinder played very well in a rather classical style, which this ‘romantic’ concerto can take, but I did not hear much rapport, let alone dialogue between pianist and conductor.

 The second movement Adagio takes us from the A minor of the first movement to a D flat major in 3/8 time. But here the music tended to drag. There was some exquisite playing from Buchbinder;  some of the floating cascades had an almost Chopinesque feel to them with just the right degree of pedal-work.  But later on in the movement it was apparent that he wanted to move on and there were several occasions where his playing became quite hard toned and abrasive. All this was not helped by a mobile ring tone from within the audience  at the beginning of the movement.

 The third movement is again in A minor and in 4/4 time, and again there was a stop-start feeling throughout, with no real sense of coherence and line. The concluding Andante maestoso in A major had no real sense of contrasted arrival. It merely sounded loud and unconvincing. Buchbinder is without doubt a superb pianist but I think he would have been much better suited here with a conductor like Blomstedt or Neeme Jarvi.

 Although Orozco-Estrada’s reading of the Dvorak symphony had some fine moments, especially in the second movement Adagio, it didn’t really cohere as a cogent symphonic statement. The first movement in 6/8 time lacked that all important ‘sombre’ tone, to use Tovey’s phrase. By the time we reached the first orchestral tutti there seemed to be absolutely no correspondence between the conductor’s over-animated gestures and the underwhelming actual effect of the orchestra. Dvorak’s astounding D minor climax initiating the movements coda had little sense of drama, let alone the sense of ‘crisis’ Tovey found here. Tonight it was played too fast with inadequate attention to the thrusting cross-rhythms Dvorak creates. The second theme in the F major Poco adagio which develops into a phrase reminiscent of the opening tones of ‘Tristan’ had none of the ‘rustic mystery’ Tovey mentions. At one point towards the last climax, with surging strings in D flat major, there was a sense of real involvement, but this was short lived.  Parts of the furiant  Scherzo with all its cross-rhythms and rhythms in ‘deux-temps’ came off quite well, but although it is  dramatic with plenty of stretches of fortissimo, it is also inflected with a kind of up-beat bounce, superbly realised with conductors like Kubelik and Ancerl. I didn’t hear much of this in this performance! And unlike Kubelik and Monteux, who also made a wonderful recording of the work with the late fifties LSO, Orozco deployed the modern layout with non-antiphonal violins, and the resultant lack of violin part definition.

 Donald Tovey was a great admirer of Dvorak’s music, especially this symphony, which wasn’t much played at the time he was writing. In his discussion of the symphony he notes that the finale, with all its transitions, contrasts and drama, has its own inner logic of coherence, and that the ‘task of the conductor’ is to keep the movement ‘flowing’ rather than articulating what is so clear in the phrasing’. Tonight Orozco-Estrada did the opposite of this by over-emphasisng a particular transition or dramatic phrase. This was apparent in the opening sequences of the movement  with its rising octaves and rocketing triplets. And, as already mentioned, the conductor unnecessarily foregrounded particular  phrases in the horns, and/or brass. Generally the LPO played well,  but this did little to compensate for the overall  lack of ‘flow’, line and coherence.  The coda which ends in a great tutti cadence with a major key resolution was certainly loud, but felt as though it had been added on rather than being organically developed and unleashed from structure of the movement, and indeed the whole symphony.

 Geoff Diggines.