Mozart Partners Barber and Bartók in Søndergård Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bartók, Barber, Mozart: Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 20.2.2014. (RJ)

Bartók: Divertimento for String Orchestra
Barber: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op 22
Mozart: Symphony No 40 in G minor, K550.

Bach, Beethoven and Brahms never have difficulty in drawing a crowd, but how different it is for 20th century composers even if their names do begin with a B!  It was alarming to see so many empty seats for this programme featuring Bartók and Barber – which was a great shame given the quality of both the music and the performance.

The Divertimento is one of Bartók’s lightest and most accessible works. Composed in a fortnight or so in 1939 as war clouds were gathering over Europe, it uses is a form much favoured by classical composers with a group of solo instruments alternating passages with a full ensemble. These features were readily discernible in the outer movements of this performance though the chromatic harmonies were distinctly twentieth century. The central slow movement was much bleaker, a portent of the suffering and despair to come; in Søndergård’s intepretation it seemed to emanate from a different and disturbing world. The rondo finale was much jollier and taken at a cracking pace with plenty of interaction between the soloists and full orchestra. Unmistakably Hungarian in its dance-like rhythms I wondered if Wales’ premier orchestra had been augmented with a posse of gypsy violinists especially for the occasion.

That fine German cellist Alban Gerhardt took to the platform for the Barber Concerto looking far younger than his press photos might suggest. Barber was a great admirer of the cellist Raya Garbousova and tailored the work to reflect her technique and style, and judging from the demands the work puts on the soloist she was clearly a virtuoso of the first rank. But the orchestra also has a chance to show its mettle as in the defiant opening movement in which the French horn announces the first theme. Gerhardt gave a splendid account of this movement before adopting a gentler touch in the lyrical Siciliano of the middle movement. His virtuosity was put to the test again in the dramatic finale, but was a softer emotional feel returned for the melodic second subject. The audience was clearly thrilled by this performance.

According to the rules of logic the concert should have finished with another 20th century masterwork – Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra perhaps?. Yet surprisingly the orchestra turned the clock back over 150 years. However, Mozart’s Symphony No 40, one of the very few he composed in a minor key, holds up well in whatever company it finds itself, and following the Bartók and Barber seemed to have taken on a contemporary aura of its own.

Søndergård seems to subscribe to Charles Rosen’s opinion that it is “a work of passion, violence and grief.”  There was certainly a nervous urgency to the first theme of the opening movement, and the slow movement with its chromatic countermelody had tragic overtones. One also sensed a note of anger and frustration in the Minuetto briefly offset by the mild-mannered trio. While calm was restored by the end of the finale there were some harmonically challenging passages to get through beforehand in which both orchestra and conductor acquitted themselves with flying colours. This was the most absorbing performance of a Mozart symphony I have heard in ages.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard on the BBC I-player for the next few days.


Roger Jones