‘Dancing with the Orchestra’ was the last subscription concert of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and two compositions with a focus on dance bookended Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in this programme with a strong Hungarian influence. It began with Dances of Galánta by Zoltán Kodály, who spent many happy summers of his childhood in this small town, which today is found in Slovakia. The dance music of the local gypsy bands was famous, not just in Kodály’s childhood but also before; around 1800, some of their music was written down and published in Vienna. The buoyant energy, wild syncopations and passionate melodies of Kodály’s work are irresistible for audiences and it is to be appreciated that the SSO programmed such a seldom-performed piece on this occasion.

Alina Ibragimova © Eva Vermandel
Alina Ibragimova
© Eva Vermandel

The intriguing question in such repertoire is always whether this highly idiomatic style may be learned merely from studying the score and listening to recordings. The SSO and its conductor for the evening, James Gaffigan, gave a mostly outstanding performance of this work. The vehement opening cello melody immediately grabbed the audience’s attention and it was soon followed by the extensive clarinet cadenza, performed with eloquent freedom, and the same instrument’s stirringly beautiful next theme. Gaffigan excelled in finding the wonderfully free rubato style of so many verbunkos melodies (the notorious method of recruiting young peasant men to become soldiers in long-since-gone times, by offering them free wine, and the eye-catching, proud dance of army officers in dashing uniforms) and led the orchestra with sure hands through the quagmire of complex tempo changes. Notwithstanding these qualities, at times the large string tuttis felt too heavy for this spiky dance music and I missed the inherent sarcastic humour of the well-behaved Poco meno mosso section.

Kodály was one of Béla Bartók’s closest friends, so it was only appropriate to continue the concert with the latter composer’s Violin Concerto no. 2.  Russian-British violinist Alina Ibragimova ripped into the opening solo with such feverish élan as if her life depended on it. Her reading of this extremely difficult composition was fully convincing. As a result of her impeccable right-hand technique, her bow cut through the hardest passages, were they a rapid stream of fortissimo runs (as in the resolute fury of the first movement’s Vivace section), or soaring gentle legato passages, for example, her second entry of the same movement. She played the famous quarter-note triplets, just before the cadenza, with self-evident ease, making them sound like a natural part of the work rather than bold compositorial attempts to outrage – as they were often thought of in the past.

The delicate, barely whispered pleading of the variation movement’s theme was followed by another outstanding moment, the quirky, quasi-improvised duet between soloist and timpani, assisted by double bass pizzicati. The final movement further juxtaposed untameably wild melodies with the breathlessness of tender moments, all performed with supreme confidence.

On the international touring circuit, there are dozens of brilliant violinists, whose preparation and technique is beyond reproach. Ibragimova’s performance convinced me that she is a truly unique artist who responds to every challenge of the repertoire played with individually conceived musical solutions. Clearly, she has her own, carefully developed and profoundly refined style of playing. This means taking risks, which she does, and that occasionally comes at a price. Some of her tools of expression I find less appealing, for example, her vibrato hardly ever ceased to be nervous and overly fast; nonetheless, it is part of her musical being and, without hesitation, I accept it as that.

One of the few common links between Bartók and Sergei Rachmaninov is that both composers chose self-imposed exile at historical turning points of their respective countries, when they migrated to and lived until their deaths in the United States. While Bartók escaped the Nazification of his native Hungary a year after the Violin Concerto was premiered in 1939, Russia was not the same any more for Rachmaninov, after the October Revolution broke out in Leningrad in 1917. He composed little for the rest of his life; his last completed work, the Symphonic Dances, finished the concert.

While Gaffigan was not always able to follow the delicate rhythmic changes of Ibragimova’s playing earlier, he was in absolute control in this work and the orchestra responded well to his direction. It is an odd work, not only because of the highly unusual Non allegro as the first movement’s tempo marking (what is it then, if not an allegro?) but also, large sections of the three movements reveal little, if any, dance-like characters. The first movement’s persistent insistence on melodies based on triads (the first, third and fifth notes of a scale) and long sections in C minor sounded eerily old-fashioned for a work of 1940, offset by unusual instruments in the orchestra, like piano or an alto saxophone. There was an almost otherworldly elegance in the second movement’s decadent waltz, but the mood turned positively sombre with the last movement’s repeated references to the Gregorian Dies irae chant.