United Kingdom Bartók and Stravinsky:Students from the Royal Academy of Music, Dame Harriet Walter (narrator), Simon Wright (conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, 28.6.2014 (MB)
Bartók – Seven pieces from ‘Mikrokosmos’, for two pianos, four hands, Sz.108
Sonata for two pianos and percusson, Sz.110
Stravinsky – The Soldier’s Tale
Florian Mitrea, Alexandra Vaduva (piano)
Tom Lee, Paul Stoneman, Oliver Butterworth (percussion)
Kate Suthers (violin)
Felix Lashmar (double bass)
Leonie Bluett (clarinet)
Hannah Rankin (bassoon)
Matthew Williams (trumpet)
Elliot Pooley (trombone)
What a treat, to hear not just one but two of Bartók’s two-piano works, followed by The Soldier’s Tale, especially in excellent performances from Royal Academy students! Florian Mitrea and Alexandra Vaduva followed in the hallowed footsteps of Bartók himself and his wife, Ditta Pásztory. Mitrea and Vaduva conjured up from the start a sound that was recognisably Bartókian and of the ‘two piano’ variety: a banal observation, perhaps, but not, I think, one that goes entirely without saying. Both musicians, whether individually or together, offered clear delineation of lines, without sacrificing the spirit of the music. Stravinsky, Petruskha in particular, seemed to be echoed in ‘Chord Study’, the second of the Seven Pieces from ‘Mikrokosmos’, Mitrea imparting nicely shimmering tone where required. The following ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ was urgent, without running away; indeed, performances were admirably controlled throughout. The Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and the Sonata for two pianos and percussion both seemed to be presaged in ‘Staccato and Legato’, after which the ecstatic lyricism and harmony of the ‘New Hungarian Folksong’ came both as intensification and contrast. A fine sense of rhythm and style ensured that the final ‘Ostinato’ registered as a true conclusion.
The Sonata itself followed, for which the pianists, now able fully to unleash their virtuosity, were joined by Tom Lee and Paul Stoneman, whose musicianship and execution proved every bit their partners’ equal. (If only we had a recording from the Bartóks!) There was never any doubt, from the wonderfully ominous opening, that we were dealing with a towering masterpiece. Co-ordination was impeccable, throughout a wide – and meaningful – dynamic range. If Vaduva’s piano contribution was often, though by no means always, more on the percussive side, then that is a perfectly valid choice to have made. The final, fugal section of that first movement was highly incisive, antiphonal writing coming across with admirable clarity. That opening to the second movement, quite unlike anything else I know, registered with the astonishment that it should, a credit to both percussionists. Night music wove its magic. Again, unanimity of ensemble was highly impressive throughout. The finale was exultant, though far from unambiguously so.
A new group of musicians, joined by Harriet Walter and conducted by Simon Wright, gave us a splendid performance of The Soldier’s Tale. I was not always entirely sure about the new English version of the narration – I could not find a credit – but contemporary references to a ‘current account’ and the like did not jar too much. At any rate, Walter’s contribution captured the attention, gamely alternating between characters and properly adhering to the dictates of metre. Stravinsky’s miraculous score emerged in pungent, mordant fashion, properly poised between ‘Russian’ colour and neo-Classical desiccation, a forerunner indeed to both Mavra and the Octet, as well as the more obvious Symphonies of Wind Instruments. There was a keen sense of dialogue and confrontation between the instruments; the music really sounded as if it were by Stravinsky, which again, is not a quality to be taken for granted. Dances were well characterised, the Tango darkly erotic. If Kate Suthers’s excellent rendition of the violin part necessarily rendered her first amongst instrumental equals, there was not a weak link in the ensemble, directed with a fine ear for metre and colour by Wright.