Infernal Dance - Inside the World of Béla Bartók is this year's South Bank Special series. It's quite an endeavour, since Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia will perform many concerts over 11 months, culminating in Duke Bluebeard's Castle in November. It's an important series, since Bartók's place in 20th century music cannot be overestimated. It's Bartók who carries Stravinsky's legacy in new directions, influencing composers as diverse as Karol Szymanowski and Elliott Carter.

© Clive Barda
© Clive Barda

Bartók's Cantata Profana (1930) made a spectacular start to this intelligently planned programme. What a masterstroke to bring in the Coro Gulbenkian under their Chorus Master Jorge Matta ! This choir is almost legendary, as its many fine recordings prove, and travels extensively, but its appearances in this country are all too infrequent. With their roots in baroque polyphony, they are technically flawless, yet they bring individual character to what they sing. The voices are extremely well balanced, so instead of a wash of sound, they sound distinctive, like a good orchestra. Combined with the Philharmonia Voices, also among the best in their field, they demonstrated why the choral parts in this cantata are central to its success.

Cantata Profana is based on a legend about nine young huntsmen who go into a forest pursuing stags but are themselves bewitched and turned into their prey. Bartók writes dense textures into the choruses, so the music evokes the mystery of a primeval forest. The father, baritone Michele Kalmandi, begs his sons to return to safety, but the sons have chosen a more dangerous path. The nine sons are depicted as a unit by one tenor, Attila Fekete, but it is the chorus as forest which dominates the whole work. The choral voices murmur menacingly, full of incident, like shadows in the forest. This is where the personality of the chorus pays dividends. Bartók is using the voices like an orchestra. Towards the end, the sons blend back into the forest, as the tenor sings with the choir. Fekete declaims one last glorious phrase, Czak tista forrásból (but from cool mountain springs) which the choir has been quietly intoning and will continue singing after the tenor goes quiet. Fekete floats this exotic last phrase like a muezzin calling across vast distances. It's meant to sound alien because it's coming from another dimension, far from the rules of the father's household. That's why it's "profane" - it uses a Bachian frame on which to hang ideas that subvert conventional piety.

Although I don't speak Hungarian, the choral diction fitted the musical line so well that I think the choirs were singing in an idiomatic way. In any case a performance as spirited as this creates its validity as the voices match the musical line so well.

In Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste individual musicians shone, such as Helen Crayford (celeste), Hugh Webb (harp) and the percussionists led by Andrew Smith and David Corkhill. Salonen's dynamics were clear. The transit from almost inaudible pianissimo in the Andante tranquillo flowed logically towards the wilder Allegro molto. This piece works spatially, too, enhanced by the flow from xylophone to timpani across the platform. This wasn't, otherwise, the most luminous reading I've heard but the audience was unusually restive, almost disruptive. Coughing doesn't bother me but this coughing seemed orchestrated rather than inadvertent. Luckily the audience settled down after the second movement when they started paying attention.

When Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) was premiered there were near riots as it was so shocking. This vivid performance showed how it still has the power to stun, a hundred years later. Salonen doesn't overdo the sharp angularity. Here, Salonen was trying to show the influence of Stravinsky on Bartók .The jagged edges are there, and the geological blocks of sound, but Salonen connects to the deeper undercurrents. This is a saga about the earth, so earthiness and sonorous depth work well. The lyrical passsages, such as the flutes, sounded all the more vernal and fragile against this bedrock.