For a folklore enthusiast like yours truly, the CBSO’s matinee last Saturday seemed the perfect recipe: take some Liszt, a generous amount of Bartók and a pinch of Brahms, then add to the excellent musicians for a delectable musical experience. The music of the main course – Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra – was solidly delivered but somewhat failed to make the lasting impression I was expecting. In the first movement, the orchestra created a strong tension with their tremolo, yet out of the fading marcato rose the gentle, innocent tinkling of a mobile phone, whose owner took some time to find the device despite grim faces in the audience and a stern look of the conductor. This, however, didn’t impact the musicians, who continued with the beautiful second movement chorale, impressionistic flourishes and the interloping reminiscence of a march tune of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. Only the fifth and last movement, however, finally showed the drive and verve I had been hoping for all along – a “dash down the home straight”, as it was rightly described in the programme, despite the frequent tempo changes. Out of an unexpected tranquillo, a swirling music rises from the strings, leading to a full-on, ringing brass passage that at first appears to be the crowning finish, yet the musicians pick up speed once more in a “sprint for the finishing line”.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega
The first half, however – a great selection of starters, if you will – was a great pleasure. The applause welcoming Edward Garner had hardly subsided when he began Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 1 in a good but unrushed pace. The flowing first theme was played with such great feeling, strength and colour that one got the impression the music resounded within one’s body as much as outside of it. Even though the strings were occasionally drowned out by the brass section, this didn’t narrow the overall impression. The Hungarian Dance no. 13, sandwiched between the famous melodies of the first and second dance, surprised with a rather harsh sounding side drum (probably due to the hall’s reverberation), which, however was soon forgotten with the first bars of Dance no. 2. The CBSO gave the initial rises the necessary dramatic feel as well as joy and liveliness to the subsequent dance, with the continuous ebb and flow of the music like waves lapping at the banks of the Danube.

While Brahms’ contact to the country just over the border from Vienna was limited touring with the violinist Ede Remény and ideas of the exotic “other”, Bartok was one of the leading figures in Hungarian music when he composed his Dance Suite. The year 1923 marked the 50th anniversary of the creation of Budapest, which was to be celebrated musically with commissions of three of the country’s most popular composers – Dohnányi, Kodály and Bartók. This suite marks Bartók’s coming of age as a composer for orchestra, and nothing he had written before quite has the spontaneity and inventiveness of this piece. The dark introduction, lively and engagingly played by the solo bassoon, briefly gives way to a calmer feel before the dance sets off with strong rhythms that Gardner shaped with snappy, crisp movements. Never did he have to push his orchestra, whose dominant brass section now had the chance to shine in the bold glissandi and dance tune with seemingly American influences. As much fabulous acoustics of the hall added to the jaunty playing, it wasn’t particularly favourable for the percussion instruments, and both side drum (without snare) and big drum sounded dull.

Louis Schwizgebel © Marco Borggreve
Louis Schwizgebel
© Marco Borggreve
By the time the young Swiss-Chinese pianist Louis Schwizgebel entered the stage, this was long forgotten. Even though it appeared that he hit the wrong keys a few times in those ludicrously fast passages of Franz Liszt’s white-hot Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, he created sparkling roulades like little waterfalls. Where the hard intonation of the piano at first had me raise a metaphorical eyebrow as I prefer a mellower sound, this only proved an advantage. It helped Schwizgebel shape clear, long scales and high glittering passages despite the reverberation as well as softer lines, and the piano to carry across the mighty orchestra, with which it merged for the final few bars.

Even though it wasn’t a concert without its little flaws, and the second half left me strangely underwhelmed, this was by no means caused by the musicians. The young pianist lived up to his reputation as “insightful musician” (New York Times) with “a profound gift” who communicated and interacted with the orchestra, which in turn was always spot on in intonation and intensity as well as a brilliant, clear and transparent sound, all of which in the end brought the well-earned, long ovations and the occational “Bravo!”

***11