Proms 2011: Bartók from Bavouzet and a touch of Faust

Nick Shave has an unemotional experience during Bartók...

When it comes to the piano, we have a lot to thank 19th-century Romanticism for: virtuosity, expressivity, grandeur and greatness. But equally we might thank it for the reaction that, historically, came next: the stripped-down works of Stravinsky and his Neoclassical disciples who initially decided that it was not Beethoven they should look to for inspiration, but Bach.

To hear the angular percussiveness of Bartók’s writing in the Piano Concerto No. 1, is to enter that stark Stravinskian world in which, as the Russian composer once provocatively claimed, music is 'essentially powerless to express anything at all'. Written in 1926, Bartók’s work is inspired by Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind (1923-4) and, like the playfully propulsive passages of that work, clearly harks back to the Baroque.

But in many ways, Bartók’s is the more confrontational of the two: its first movement is full of punchy gestures that explore the mechanistic qualities of the piano. The counterpoint in the nocturnal second is dark and dissonant, preceded by prodding exchanges between the pianist and the percussion instruments – including snare and timpani – that surround it at the front of the stage. And then there’s the final Allegro Molto movement, forever driving to its conclusion. Stunning.

This piece is fiendish to perform. Bartók himself struggled to get its rapid runs and fistfuls of chords – again recalling Stravinsky’s Petrushka piano arrangement (watch Khatia Buniatishvili playing this on our webcast) – under his hands in time for the work’s US premiere. Yet, in the Royal Albert Hall this week, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet made it look easy – finding all the attack, play, clarity and eerie menace this piece requires.

Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting was pinpoint accurate in the Concerto, as much as in the exotic Dances of Galánta by Kodály and the vast Faust Symphony by Liszt that framed it. So many contrasts in one program. Indeed, the piano sounded like a different instrument when it came to Bavouzet’s encore, Liszt’s Invocation from the Harmonie poètiques: slightly splashy, yet strikingly lyrical after the Bartók.

Prom 15
Kodály: Dances of Galánta
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 1
Liszt: A Faust Symphony
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (pno); Christopher Ventris (ten); London Philharmonic Choir (men's voices), London Symphony Chorus (men's voices), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski

Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is Contributing Editor of BBC Music Magazine. A regular reviewer and blogger of the Proms, he can usually be found at the Royal Albert Hall with only seconds to spare, breaking into an ungainly powerwalk somewhere between the ticket collection desk and the stalls