Sometimes concerts are just concerts: music is performed, and if the juxtaposition of two pieces happens to provide some insight into the composer or his music, then this is a pleasing by-product of the performance. Other concerts are barely-disguised lectures; these concerts have grand aims and programmes thick with scholarly arguments. The aim of the Philhamonia’s Infernal Dance concert series seems as though it could hardly be grander: consultant academics Malcolm Gillies and David Pear intend to elucidate the enigma that is Bartók. The mystery lies in the variety of his music: how come one piece sounds so aggressively progressive, when the next is gently Romantic and bathed in folksong?

© Clive Barda
© Clive Barda

Bartók’s work frequently contains familiar flavours, hints of Stravinsky or Debussy which come to the surface of the bubbling music and then disappear without a trace. Both composers are represented in the series in order to illustrate this similarity and yet point out how different the material sounds in Bartók’s hands. Zoltán Kodály is less well-known than these two giants of the twentieth century; however as a personal friend of Bartók as well as a fellow Hungarian, the inclusion of his Dances of Galánta was pleasing. The Dances are fragmentary, seeming to change mood and character on a whim. The Philharmonia revelled in the sheer excitement of the piece, apparently allowing the music to run out of control, whilst at the same time ensuring that every note of the tricky filigree was heard. Kodály’s writing is deceptive: the innocent melodies float on a troubled sea. The darker accompaniment to every sweet folk-tune was given perfect prominence, never disappearing to allow the saccharine melody to take over. Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen danced above the complexities of the music, never troubled by the ever-changing pulse but shaping an incredibly atmospheric performance.

If Salonen was the ideal conductor for the challenging Dances, then for Bartók’s intense Second Violin Concerto Christian Tetzlaff was the ideal soloist. In Tetzlaff’s exceedingly capable hands the (significant) technical difficulties melted away, leaving room for a full expression of the desolation and bitterness in the music. The evident understanding between conductor and soloist resulted in a very well balanced performance, although Tetzlaff’s enormous sound was hardly at risk of being lost. This sound was ideal for the rugged outer movements, although some less intense moments would not have come amiss, particularly in the more wistful second movement.

Two years before his death in 1945, Bartók was asked by the conductor Koussevitsky to write an orchestral piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The result was the divisive Concerto for Orchestra, instantly popular with audiences yet denounced by his followers as a sign that the acerbic composer was being corrupted by the ease of American life. It is true that the piece is less untameable than the powerful second Violin Concerto; however the Concerto contains moments of enormous terror as well as the light-hearted elements which made it such a success. As expected, the Philharmonia tackled both aspects of the piece with great gusto, even raising a laugh with a humorous trombone entry. This was an extremely polished performance, the brass and strings taking to the Stravinsky-like moments of terror with fiery enthusiasm whilst the woodwind sparkled throughout.

This concert, and indeed the entire series, has a well-argued academic purpose behind it: the different faces of Bartók are juxtaposed to explore how it is that one piece can sound so different to the next. Far from being the grand and almost impossible aim that this seemed before hearing the concert, the answer seemed really rather simple by the end: the angular Violin Concerto and the mellower Concerto for Orchestra are linked by Bartók’s constant urge to ‘bang at the cage door of music history’, those moments of musical rage are never far away.