In an all-Bartók programme to close the third of five weekends of the Festival Printemps des Arts de Monte-Carlo, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Péter Eötvös were joined by violinist Renaud Capuçon, fresh from his Beethoven recital with his Quatuor Renaud Capuçon just the night before.

Renaud Capuçon, Péter Eötvös and the BBCSO © Alain Hanel
Renaud Capuçon, Péter Eötvös and the BBCSO
© Alain Hanel

They opened with Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 1. It was published posthumously in 1956, and given that Bartók reworked the first movement as part of his Two Portraits, one might assume that he would have preferred that the early concerto be forgotten. However, it contains some passionately Romantic writing (its inspiration was his short-lived relationship with 19-year old Stefi Geyer), as well as jazzy, almost Gershwin-esque inflections (with its opening arpeggio motif that rises to a lingering seventh carrying more than a hint of “I loves you, Porgy”). Capuçon’s warmly lyrical and smooth tone felt ideally suited here, and he gave the modal lines great depth of colour. The second movement is more angular and playful, with its spiky Scherzo contrasted with calmer, lusher writing for strings and horns. The solo part has some fiendish double-stopping and cross-rhythms, and here Capuçon’s drive and energy were highly impressive. Overall, the work perhaps lacks the coherency of his later works, but there are nevertheless some strong moments, and Capuçon was highly convincing, confidently supported by Eötvös and the BBCSO.

Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky in 1943 following Bartók’s flight to America, the Concerto for Orchestra proved to be a shot in the arm for the composer’s output. Probably one of Bartók’s best-known concert works, it is a great orchestral showcase, given that it allows so many individuals and sections of the orchestra to shine. And shine they mostly did tonight, only occasionally let down by the low raked staging, which meant the woodwind in particular struggled at times to rise above the weighty string sound. However, in the Game of Pairs second movement, the pairs of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and muted trumpets presented themselves in turn with great precision and wit, and here Eötvös was assisted by Bartók’s lighter scoring in keeping the strings at bay to allow the duets to cut through the texture. The precision of the side drum player (David Hockings) who begins and ends this movement also deserves mention. The BBCSO players were on strong form throughout, with a rich string sound in particular, creating a dark, ominous mood in the central Elegia, as well as a strident, shriller impact when joined by the woodwind in the opening movement. Eötvös is a rather undemonstrative conductor to watch, but it was clear that the BBSCO were well drilled enough here to require limited direction. In the whirling moto perpetuo Finale, Eötvös held the dynamics back to manage a slow build. Bartók’s writing is at its most exciting here, and the BBCSO brass section was particularly blazing in their jazzy moment in the spotlight that led towards the work’s energetic finish.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 was the product of the difficult times prior to Bartók’s exodus to the US, with fascism gaining strength in Hungary. Yet it is a surprisingly positive work, and the central set of variations, flanked by two movements drawing heavily on variation, gave violinist and friend Zoltán Székely the three movement work he wanted, at the same time as allowing Bartók to create a work based on variation, his original plan for the piece. It proved to be this evening’s highlight, with Capuçon now on a roll in terms of sheer energy and communication. From the jazzy theme of the opening movement, over strummed harp chords, he was in total command of proceedings, although Eötvös also paced the frequent tempi changes here with great care. Capuçon’s performance was captivatingly mobile and physical, particularly in the demanding cadenza. The BBCSO produced a luxurious string sound in the Mahlerian opening chords of the slow movement, and Capuçon’s wasp-like descent towards the end of the movement, followed by his trio with two high violas, was a joy to behold. The movement’s sudden ending felt a little uncertain in terms of ensemble, but the emphatic opening to the finale brushed any doubt aside. Capuçon’s jaunty, lilting solo lines, against swelling brass and woodwind waves, and dreamy harp whole-tone scales, with an impressive surge to finish topped off an exhilarating performance.

They treated the appreciative audience to a lively encore, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 5: a definite crowd-pleaser, with Capuçon gamely taking a seat at the back of the first violins to join in. Whilst Brahms’ dances retain less of the true Hungarian folk idiom than Bartók might have liked, this was a rousing end to the evening, and a great conclusion to the Festival’s third weekend.

Nick's press trip to Monte-Carlo was funded by Printemps des Arts

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