The Hungarian Dances (17-21) Johannes Brahms initially conceived for piano four hands, launched this concert at the Tonhalle Maag. Brahms had set the dances after their original sources, and he found Antonín Dvořák's orchestration a “cursed arrangement” that he would have done better had he wanted such a piece. Nonetheless, the racy folk melodies and steady feed of boisterousness are an invitation to kick up one’s heels, and they remain among Brahms’ most familiar and popular works. The Tonhalle mastered them under the dynamic baton of Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, whose animated elegance and spitfire athleticism boosted the audience’s appreciation. The musicians themselves seemed to have great fun too, the first and second chair cellos, for example, passing broad smiles between them. These undeniably “feel good” dances bear little emotive depth, but the more profound Camille Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto no. 3 in B minor, with Joshua Bell as soloist, followed on their heels.

Joshua Bell © Chris Lee
Joshua Bell
© Chris Lee

Bell is a tremendous concert draw. He is famous on Youtube as the fellow who baffled subway-travellers with his extraordinary talent while busking incognito. Bell also owns a coveted 1713 Stradivarius that was stolen from a dressing room at Carnegie Hall long before he was born. Lost for almost 50 years, the invaluable violin resurfaced only after the thief’s death in 1985, at which time Bell could purchase it. Stripped of the grime and shoe polish the thief had used to disguise it, the instrument is “a piece of history” that Bell considers an extraordinary privilege to play. It came as no surprise that he cupped his hand around its bottom as he carried it onto the stage, much as one would a baby.

Bell's rendition of Saint-Saëns' concerto, which premiered in Hamburg in 1880, captured the audience from the start. Bell’s physical strength was integral to his performance, and he used his breathing optimally to meet the demands of his vigorous playing. He also used his body something like a metronome, often swaying from side to side, his shiny crop of hair settling just a split second after any strike of his bow. And impressively, he and the orchestra struck a perfect balance in both volume and tenor, the one often echoing the strains of the other.

The concerto’s second movement included the superb flute and oboe solos, then a feast of mesmerising melodies. Looking up, Bell seemed to use musical phrases almost to ask questions of the audience in the balcony. And in the third movement, he cut through the beginning with a gesture as sharp as a knife, joining the orchestra later in a militaristic and jubilant ending. Despite speeds that almost defied the capability of the human hand, Bell’s clean and precise fingering conjured up images of monumental power and a higher realm. To call it magic is no exaggeration.

After the interval, the five movements of Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra contrasted a catalogue of disparate elements. Concertmaster Andreas Janke gave crystal clear and pointed direction to the strings and, from the podium, Hrůša capitalised on the work’s thrilling shifts. The orchestral piece carries all the drama of Bartók’s difficult first years of exile in America, where he eked by on few resources, and suffered his fatal leukaemia. But the work remains a brilliant expression. The first movement alone, which starred a mystic flute and jaunting woodwinds, was brought to its conclusion by the bombastic volume of brass, perhaps played even a little too loudly for this hall. By contrast, a lone snare drum launched the second movement; a sublime oboe and bassoon previewing the “disassocation” Bartók relished. 

The emergence of flute and oboe in the third movement Elegie made its start feel like a body coming up from underwater. Directing most of his attention to the violins, the conductor was highly animated here, almost as if electrical charges were coursing through his body. The flute solo at the end of the sombre fourth movement was particularly brilliant; in the fifth, a certain agitation ran up through the work’s final triumph and was as breathtaking as watching a canoe going over a mighty fall. With the full host of instruments aligned here in majestic full force, that might as well have been the Niagara.