Bartók's Infernal Dance, Philharmonia/Esa-Pekka Salonen

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Helen Wallace reviews the latest instalment of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Infernal Dance Bartók series at the Southbank Centre

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‘I like that Chinese piece.’ So said an appreciative neighbour hearing Bartók’s An Evening in the Country hammered out in our living room. I was amused that 90 years after his work was dismissed as ‘Chinese Chord Music’ by indignant critics of the 1920s the description clings. It’s not just the whole tone and modal scales, the jittery rhythms, grinding counterpoint and piano-as-percussion: an innocent ear picks up something peculiarly feral, alien and aggressive in Bartók – and time has not dulled its thrilling rawness.

But that rawness can still challenge: Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Infernal Dance series continued last week, on 27 October, with an eccentric programme beginning with Contrasts, the trio written for Benny Goodman and Josef Szigeti. Despite the demonic intensity of clarinettist Mark Van der Wiel and Philharmonia leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay‘s performance, it’s a highly exposed chamber work to open an orchestral concert and the Royal Festival Hall felt cavernously wrong for it. Van der Wiel caught the Goodman spirit, especially in the intriguing ‘Relaxation’ movement, where we could better hear him. Yefim Bronfman, who was to be the concerto soloist later, added the minimal piano part in ferocious bursts, a dragon twitching his tail before rearing up in earnest.

And rear up he did in a blistering performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2. While Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has recently unearthed a sensuality and even humour in Bartók’s severe first three concerti (on Chandos), the bear-like Bronfman is an interpreter of the old school: he unleashed a furious power on to the first movement of the Second Concerto which ignited a new level of dynamism from the orchestra, while we glimpsed pools of stillness when Bartók’s masterly orchestration allowed. Bronfman is a match for any bass drum or knife-bright brass section, as it was here, and the sheer velocity of his cascading passages in a blistering finale was thrilling. Most memorable, however, was the eerie, crawling pianissimo Salonen wrought in the Adagio into which Bronfman crept with cat-like stealth before dissolving into gossamer-light trills of the Scherzo. Salonen and Bronfman have worked on this repertoire over several years and it shows, never more so than in the moment of tense silence they snatch together before the end.

Stravinsky’s influence is palpable in this Concerto, not only in its leading motif which is almost identical to the climax of The Firebird – though this is a firebird with its feathers plucked out and flayed alive – but in its airy scoring and taut structure. The same cannot be said for the congested melodic masala of the Dance Suite. Salonen’s own dance on the podium seemed here more exciting than anything the orchestra could produce, strings lacking both edge and radiance. Bartók twice tried to carve out a suite from his ballet The Wooden Prince, eager to strip away as much of its descriptive music as possible. Here we heard his later, longer 1932 version, with its exciting Nature’s Awakening and highly un-Bartókian Dance of the Waves. Salonen acted out the part of puppet on the podium with gymnastic drama: sadly, the orchestra didn't quite match his verve or intensity.

Don’t miss what promises to be a climax of the series, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, next week (3 Nov).

 Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

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Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace