12 May 2012

Bartók and Szymanowski, Barbican Hall

In this, the second of two LSO concerts in which Péter Eötvös replaced Pierre Boulez, one continued to feel the loss of the latter in his repertoire, yet one equally continued to value his replacement, very much his own man.

Where the first concert had inserted Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto between Debussy’s Images and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, here Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, the ‘Song of the Night’ was preceded by two Bartók works.The Szymanowski symphony provided a fitting climax, and made for an interesting contrast with another recent London performance, from Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In almost every respect, Eötvös’s performance proved superior. Eötvös’s, or rather Boulez’s, programme made a great deal more sense too. (There will, extraordinarily, be a third London performance later in the year, or rather two performances on 11 and 18 December, again from the LSO, conducted by Valery Gergiev.)

In the opening bars, Eötvös imparted a fine sense of purpose, of onward tread, which had often been lacking in Jurowski’s somewhat meandering account. Yet there was no loss of delight in sonority, nor of fantasy from an LSO very much on top form. Steve Davislim in his opening line, ‘O nie śpij, druhu, nocy tej,’ (‘O! Sleep not, my dearest friend, this night’) immediately announced himself more commandingly than Jurowski’s tenor, more fervent, even possessed, for there was here and elsewhere a fine sense of mysticism to the performances of all concerned. Where Jurowski had often skated over the surface and had misplaced one particular climax, here one truly felt that Eötvös knew where he was going, climaxes expertly prepared and executed. Orchestrally and chorally – for the London Symphony Chorus was on equally wonderful form – this was not just a magic carpet of sound; it was a carpet that took us somewhere. Eötvös was, in that typically Wagnerian dialectic, both more ‘symphonic’ and more ‘musico-dramatic,’ the one quality contributing to the other. Not only did he exhibit a fine command of rhythm, including harmonic rhythm; he also communicated musical ‘character’, whether or no Szymanowski’s ‘song’ embodies an actual ‘story’. The opening of the second stanza was again noteworthy for Davislim’s mystical yet commanding performance: ‘Jak cicho. Inni śpia.’ (‘How peaceful it is. All the world is sleeping.’) However, it was equally remarkable for the Nietzschean stillness (hints of Also sprach Zarathustra, both in Nietzsche’s and Strauss’s versions, perhaps of Mahler’s Third Symphony too) from the orchestra and a duly awestruck chorus. Orchestral memories of Tristan und Isolde soon verged upon the overwhelming: this is Night, after all. And the chorus sounded explosions in the heavens. Yes, contra Nietzsche, one can, indeed must, transcend, even if only momentarily. And was that an echo of another transfiguration, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, in the orchestral conclusion?

Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta had found the LSO’s strings and percussion on fine form too. I very much liked the questing opening, violas going so far as to evoke the stirrings of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. There was a true darkness to Eötvös’s performance, almost Romantic, but avowedly of the twentieth century, a darkness that characterised both mood and trajectory, ‘fearful symmetry’ indeed. And how splendid it was to benefit from a full orchestral string section, with no half-way house of a chamber compromise. That certainly enabled a highly dramatic performance of the fugue to emerge, as enveloping, as arresting a drama, so it seemed, as Bluebeard’s Castle itself. The second movement benefited from the placing of the violins – crucial in this of all works – to the extent that one had a sense of versicle and response, properly ‘antiphonal’ (a word seemingly often employed by people not entirely sure what it means). Rhythms were sharp without a hint of showiness. The contrapuntal delights of both work and performance seemed to evoke Bachian ‘invention’ in more than one sense. (One could hardly fail to think of Mikrokosmos.) The slow movement was wonderfully eerie, ‘night music’ that suggested as much a menacing toy kingdom, a Nutcracker turned sour, as ‘mere’ Nature. And there was a Bluebeard-like sadness underlying the violence, a vale of tears that had no need of staging. The finale was taken at quite a lick, though there were a few tempo adjustments later on that did not entirely convince. For the most part, however, this was a performance secure in direction. Again, Bachian antecedents were to the fore: a Transylvanian Brandenburg Concerto perhaps?

Of the three performances, it was that of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto that slightly disappointed, mostly on account of the first movement, in which soloist Nikolaj Znaider seemed curiously disconnected from the orchestra. Znaider is a musician I admire greatly, but here his approach seemed somewhat sectional, and lacked a real sense of interplay with the LSO, whose musicians could hardly be faulted. Perhaps it was telling that it was only really in the cadenza that Znaider’s first-movement performance ignited. What came thereafter, including the conclusion to that movement, seemed far more responsive, far better integrated, giving a sense of what might have been. The slow movement continued in that vein; the violin sang soulfully, nobly, but now sounded infinitely better ‘connected’. Its central scherzando material was sharply etched. The finale, though it had occasional reminders of earlier disengagement, proved highly successful in voicing the sheer range of Bartók’s thematic expression, in both solo and orchestral parts. Znaider’s tone was seductive, but never for its own sake. Here was a foretaste of the emotional commitment we should fully experience in Szymanowski.

Mark Berry