Wednesday’s Proms programme with Peter Eötvös and the BBC Symphony Orchestra had two connecting threads. One was new music: these works by Debussy, Bartók and Stravinsky were all presented at the proms as Henry Wood ‘novelties’, part of Wood’s keen desire to blend popular and light works with new compositions, often from fiercely avant-garde composers. And of course Eötvös’ Violin Concerto continues this tradition, in its first UK performance. The other was dance, with slightly different modulations of that term’s meaning. Debussy’s Faune and Stravinsky’s Firebird were famously presented by Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, choreographed by Nijinsky and Fokine respectively; Bartók’s Dance Suite and Eötvös’ concerto draw on Hungarian dance rhythms and folk energies, notwithstanding both works’ strikingly broad frames of cultural reference. A clever roadmap for the musical journey ahead, then.

Peter Eötvös © Klaus Rudolph
Peter Eötvös
© Klaus Rudolph

There was a striking balletic dimension to his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Eötvös favours pointed caesuras at the ends of phrases or musical paragraphs, creating the impression of a moment of a suspension, stillness, and release. His performance spotlit details, with highly sculpted moments of dynamic control and changes of colour, or an intervention in the tempo that encouraged the audience to look at one of Debussy’s many revolutionary orchestral textures. Eötvös noticed many things about the score, but lost our sense of Debussy’s meticulously calculated structure, which examines every harmonic possibility for its languorous, whole-tone opening melody, played with dark beauty by flautist Daniel Pailthorpe. As a consequence the journey of this brief but delicately wrought masterpiece had moments of illumination but no clear path.

There’s no doubt his third violin concerto, entitled Alhambra, was hotly anticipated, further burnished by the starry presence of Isabelle Faust, one of the work’s dedicatees. Inspired by the mysterious architecture of the Alhambra itself, as well as the clean light and mountainous landscape of Granada, it’s a work of vivid orchestration and violin writing that seems to speak directly to Faust’s idiosyncrasies as a performer, her own lines shadowed by archaic, eerie mandolin. Musical cryptograms of her name, Eötvös says, are embedded in the score. Faust has the extraordinary ability to play very quietly indeed, deployed to full effect in the work’s opening and closing violin soliloquies, focusing the audience’s collective ear on her understated, inward lyricism.

The work, which lasts about twenty minutes, most closely resembles a kind of rondo, with contrasting episodes of lyrical exploration and chaotic, dance-like interludes. The latter often crackled with antiphonal ripples of timbre and gesture across orchestra and soloist. The former evoke the crisp, bright air of the mountains surrounding Granada itself with ethereal, translucent textures, using xylophone, high string harmonics, individual notes plucked at the top of the harp’s register to create an envelope of limpid sound. Eötvös achieves a particularly startling effect in his combinations of high tuned and untuned percussion instruments, which produces a feathery, bracing sound, stringent and invigorating on the ear. For all this diaphanous freedom, the work remains anchored by a clear tonal centre, and wears its important intervals – the fifth and the tritone – on its sleeve. It’s a strangely maze-like work, with sudden dead ends and unexpected, off the cuff transitions into new material.

The stop-start character of the concerto spoke to the next work on the programme, Bartók’s Dance Suite. Commissioned to celebrate the unification of Buda with Pest in 1923, its nationalist purpose is diverted by Bartók into a collage of different cultural and ethnic influences (Magyar, Slovakian, Algerian, Bohemian, amongst others). It’s unsurprising from a composer who would end up in exile, and who saw borders, as Paul Griffiths’ programme note remarked, as “lines of contact, not demarcation”. This is reflected in the work’s episodic structure, expertly elucidated by Eötvös, which jerks unexpectedly from one mood and style to the next, finally recombining its main themes in a more rambunctious closing sequence. It’s a work of contrasts and Eötvös’ had a strong grasp of this impulse, leading to a performance that juxtaposed Dvořák and Petrushka and The Miraculous Mandarin in short order.

Stravinsky’s pared-back 1919 suite from The Firebird closed the concert. It was infused with considerable urgency, Eötvös preferring quick tempi from the outset, and the glowering basses and bassoons summoned up quite a bit of menace. His eye for texture and detailing meant plenty of moments landed well – the textures in the Firebird’s dance, for instance, or the intense, sustained quiet of the tremolando transition into the finale – but excessive sculpting of its moments robbed the work of dramatic impetus. The Berceuse was fulsome and expressive rather than enigmatic and mysterious, rather contrary to its lullaby character; the Infernal Dance simply needed to be louder and faster, and the great final brass chorale at the work’s conclusion felt rather businesslike.