Bringing his six-year ‘Mini journey’ to Budapest for a Bartók mini-cycle, Joolz Gale delivered a detailed vision of the Piano Concerto no. 1 and the Sonata for two pianos and percussion. Yet, a blazing performance of the Concerto for Orchestra stole the show, creating a world of unmediated feeling where every musician became a soloist in his own right. Earlier in the evening, the joy of playing etched in the face of Juliana Steinbach, as she performed the First Piano Concerto. Wresting images of beauty.

Juliana Steinbach © Balazs Borocz /Pilvax Studio
Juliana Steinbach
© Balazs Borocz /Pilvax Studio

It is a real physical endeavour the pianist must go through to perform the fistfuls and armfuls of fortissimos that Bartók demands in his first concerto. Yet the performance was not just an incessant pianistic battering ram: Steinbach’s music had a genuine cathartic power. The scale of her playing, meanwhile, matched both the ruminant Andante, with great depth of tone, and the energetic frenzy of the Allegro molto. Sadly, quite a lot of orchestral parts didn't make it through the ‘miniaturisation’ process, which opened up abyssal gaps between the ranges of the instruments. Notably, much of the brass parts were played by an accordion, lacking the spiky, aggressive quality of the real thing. This resulted in a sonic void in the midrange register, where the naked string soloists seemed to cry hopelessly for comfort. The resulting experience could only give you a small slice of Bartók's original soundworld. That being said, it was not a bad experience at all, insofar as the piano could really stand out from the acoustic clay it is sometimes trapped in.

Ferhan and Ferzan Önder, two touchingly similar sisters were to perform Bartók’s Two Pianos and Percussion Sonata. Eventually suspense was achieved in this slowly unwinding piano melody accompanied by smashes and eerie sounds in the background. Actually, the Sonata was scored for an even weirder ensemble. Joolz Gale spiced up the performance by adding extra linings to the existing framework, bringing it halfway between the original score and the composer's own re-orchestration. A light-toned but interesting contribution, yet certainly not the best use of the orchestra, and the Önder sisters’ relative stiffness hardly helped. Though the fingerwork was impeccable in the second movement, they conveyed its drive in a reading that could have done with more spontaneity.

Joolz Gale © CAFe Budapest / Andrea Felvegi
Joolz Gale
© CAFe Budapest / Andrea Felvegi

There is nothing more familiar than those famous Bartókian ostinatos, but nothing stranger than what happened to them throughout this performance, given the quaint acoustics of Pesti Vigadó. The cube-like concert-hall was filled with a strange luminescence: the reverberating percussive motifs in the first movement (Assai lento) sounded like the tolling of funeral bells. The only problem was that the later moments of sheer wildness did not sound quite big enough in this acoustic to counterbalance the enormous whams of the drum. These were skilfully pummelled by two ultra-focussed percussionists, their arms criss-crossing, as if their four hands belonged to a single composite player. The Allegro non troppo started a bit hastily, despite being yanked back into shape when a series of climaxes drew soloist and orchestra back together.

After the interval, we were transported to what sounded like a Bartókian daydream – perhaps his less astringent work. Far from a "reduction", Dave Gale’s arrangement of the Concerto for Orchestra was about musical and, above all, expressive intensification: maximising the effect and impact of every note, every gesture, as a consequence of the reduced headcount. The Concerto for Orchestra opened up a new performance space, gifted with beautiful shimmering strings, and in which every single note was given a major significance. Gale’s fresh take on the Concerto’s manifold sonorities paid off. The string section was flawless from start to finish.

Joolz Gale and ensemble mini © CAFe Budapest / Andrea Felvegi
Joolz Gale and ensemble mini
© CAFe Budapest / Andrea Felvegi

A unifying impulse connected the second movement’s witty “presentation of the couples”, with its incremental parade, almost like a courtship ritual. Outstanding among the soloists were the bassoons, a minor sixth apart; their contrapuntal duo seemed punchy to just the right degree. The musicians exorcised the harmonic portrayals of suffering and grief in this Elegia, by turning them into implacable, yet extremely vivid creative expression. The fourth movement, Intermezzo interrotto (literally "interrupted intermezzo”) featured exhilaratingly good woodwind playing, and laser-sharp focus in the string section. Joolz Gale's step-by-step motions proved incredibly efficient in the Finale, marked Presto, as the orchestra was surging with collective daring and remarkable unanimity of purpose. There is no doubt that such wholehearted vitality and commitment could only be achieved with a ‘chamber music’ approach; what's more, clarity revealed numerous telling details, that we normally only half-hear.

Joolz Gale evidently knew his way around this score and got extremely responsive playing from ensemble mini, with Bartók’s various instrumental effects (typically a magnet for hammering) colourful and never too peremptory. His performance foregrounded the concrete act of music making; Gale concerned himself with playing the works at hand and not the audience. Bravo!