Béla Bartók was a composer of extremes. An avid collector of Hungarian folk songs, he published arrangements of these simple tunes alongside his own more ascetic music. The detailed programme notes for the Philharmonia’s Bartók series entitled ‘Infernal Dance’ divide his music into three categories: the banned, the rarely played and the fully approved. These Soviet categories can still be used to tell us something of the style of the pieces: whilst fully approved works like the Concerto for Orchestra are melodic and pleasant, the rarely played and the banned share the same angry dissonance and jibes at musical preconception that make the music so challenging. Throughout the series, the two contrasting sides of Bartók’s music have been juxtaposed in every concert, leading to thought-provoking comparison as well as a balanced programme: last night’s combination of Piano Concerto No. 2 (banned), Contrasts and The Wooden Prince Suite (rarely played) and the short Dance Suite (fully approved) was rather heavier on the infernal than the innocent.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Katja Tähjä
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Katja Tähjä

Unusually for an orchestral performance, the concert began with just three musicians: Concert Master Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, Principal Clarinettist Mark Van De Wiel and pianist Yefim Bronfman appeared on the Festival Hall’s very large stage to perform Contrasts, the trio commissioned by jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman. The title refers to the differing timbres of violin and clarinet and the range of colour each instrument can provide; Bartók stretches both instruments to their limits, forcing the piano to the background for much of the piece. The players responded with bravery and spirit to the challenges of the music, a slight carefulness in the opening dissipating into freer playing, particularly in the soaring violin cadenza of the third movement.

The full orchestra then trooped on to perform The Wooden Prince Suite, Bartók’s only foray into the world of ballet. The work deals with the tension between real and idealised love: a Prince and a wooden-puppet Prince compete for the love of a Princess. The ballet was a great success, yet the composer remained unhappy with the work and twice reduced the music into shorter suites for concert performances. The music uses musical effects to paint pictures, often using nature as a basis: the silky Dance of the Waves uses a novel pairing of saxophones to produce an unusually smooth sound, whilst the string writing in the Dance of the Trees, when coupled with Salonen’s impeccable understanding of Bartók’s intentions, led to the sort of sounds that trees would probably choose to make if they possibly could. Salonen’s remarkable technique allowed him to dance above the music, always involved but never forgetting to craft his gestures in order to create the most appropriate sound, his movements even resembling the puppet of the story when called upon to do so.

The Dance Suite was the earliest of the works in the concert, as well as one of Bartók’s most popular works. The composer referred to the Suite as his “only real public success”, ascribing its popularity to harmonic consonance and his use of folk tunes, although these were actually of his own composition. Salonen used his full control of the orchestra to inject vitality into the piece, revelling in the full sound of the string section and the energetic playing of the percussion.

The concert ended with the only work from the ‘banned’ category, the Piano Concerto No. 2. The piece is sparse, with the piano often in dialogue with just one group of the orchestra. Bronfman returned to the stage as pianist, his soloistic style more successful here than in the trio. Bronfman has a particularly bright tone which suited the energetic Concerto well, also playing with mesmerising lyricism in the second movement. Salonen and Bronfman, frequent collaborators, communicated superbly, leading to a tight performance with lively interjections from the orchestra. Although unusual, it was a wise decision to end the concert with the Concerto: as well as leaving the audience with the joy of hearing such a polished performance, the work is perhaps the best reminder of Bartók’s uniquely lyrical voice in a challenging programme. Bartók could not have asked for a more engaging and full-blooded orchestra than the Philharmonia, nor a more sympathetic conductor than Salonen.