If football is a game of two halves, so are some concerts. At L’Auditori, their Barcelona home, the OBC (Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya) gave a thoroughly satisfying rendition of two contrasting 20th-century works, preceded by a Brahms concerto that was decidedly below par.

Kazushi Ono © Miyoshi Eisuke
Kazushi Ono
© Miyoshi Eisuke

There’s no time to waste in the orchestral opening of Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor: from the very first bar, it must be big and bold, the epitome of Sturm und Drang. Kazushi Ono didn’t rouse his troops to create that immediate impact, which meant that the beauty and lyricism with which they played the succeeding contrasting passage had nothing to set itself against. The entry of Stefan Vladar’s piano was winsome but lacked real urgency and fire, a sign of things to come. There was no perceptible communication between soloist and conductor: Vladar never looked up from his piano; Ono, with his back to the instrument, never turned round. Within the orchestra, things were variable also. The OBC’s strings were tightly together, generating a smooth swell with persuasively correct balance. The timpani was precisely in sync with Ono, creating a confident pulse. But the listener’s confidence was often dented by horn and trumpet entries slightly mistimed. A serene, calming second movement and some nice passagework between refrains of the closing Rondo were not enough to kindle real excitement.

But the quality in the second half could scarcely have been more different. In place of the first work advertised, Ivan Fedele’s Lexikon III, the half started with Ottorino Respighi’s 1932 Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite no. 3, the podium removed and the OBC pared down to chamber orchestra size, with strings only. The suite is a delicious confection of renaissance melodies and harmonies treated with modern string playing technique and richness of arrangement: the OBC strings played it quite beautifully. The suspended chords and their resolution shone through, the dance rhythms proceeded with grace and elegance, the melodies gave a wistful throwback to the courts of bygone centuries, much in the mood Rodrigo creates in Fantasia para un gentilhombre.

If Respighi was looking to a nostalgic past, Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, premiered in 1926, looks to a hard present and a feared dystopian future. In stark contrast to the Respighi, here was the OBC swelled to maximum size, the increased numbers of strings and woodwind augmented by trombones, tuba, percussion, harp and celesta. And they made the immediate impact that had been so lacking in the Brahms: 30 years after The Rite of Spring, Bartók takes the Stravinsky’s polyrhythmic techniques even further, assaulting your senses with a jungle of different effects. Here, Ono was the puppetmaster-in-chief, every member of the OBC alert to his gestures.

The version of The Miraculous Mandarin played here was the shortened suite, which is perhaps easier to listen to as abstract music than as programme music following parts of the story of the full ballet. Individual virtuosity highlighted different moods: erotic arabesques from the clarinets, cool nocturnal interludes coloured by the flutes, the sordidness of the tramps evoked by trombone slides, helter-skelter chase sequences by skittering strings. The full orchestra came together to give as a huge final climax, completing a compelling account of Bartók’s magnificent demonstration of orchestral colour.

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