Prom 15 given by Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra was billed as a “Hungarian Prom” and featured music of Kodály, Bartók and Liszt. Indeed it is true that Liszt, whose 200th anniversary we are celebrating this year, was born in 1811 in a small village called Raiding which was then in Hungary (it is now part of Austria and one can visit his birthplace museum with the recently-opened concert hall) and that he considered Hungary as his motherland. Musically speaking, however, there isn’t anything particularly Hungarian about his mighty Faust Symphony. Not that this mattered – Jurowski and the LPO gave a definite reading of the work well worthy of the anniversary year.

© BBC/Paul Mitchell
© BBC/Paul Mitchell

Goethe’s Faust was a subject that fascinated Liszt, and in 1854 he composed A Faust Symphony, comprising of three movements each portraying the characters of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles respectively. He later added a final movement entitled “Apotheosis” with a tenor soloist and male-voice choir. Jurowski, in his typically no-nonsense style, kept a tight rein throughout this 75-minute work with particular attention to motivic detail but always aware of the overall architecture culminating in Faust’s redemption. In the process, he inspired wonderfully committed playing from the LPO.
In the first movement, each of Faust’s themes – which form the basis for the rest of the work – was explored with clarity. Gretchen’s movement was lyrical and without sentimentality, although perhaps it could have done with a touch more tenderness (Oboist Ian Hardwick and guest principal viola Tom Dunn deserve special mention for their beautiful duet). Jurowski whipped up a vivid portrayal of Mephistopheles in the third movement, and in the finale, the combined forces of the men’s voices of the London Philharmonic Choir and London Symphony Chorus (and the grand organ) gave a stirring rendering of the Chorus Mysticus, with tenor Marco Jentzsch ardently celebrating Gretchen’s ascension.

The concert began with a spirited account of Kodály’s Dances of Galánta. The performance was full of exotic, folksy colours with virtuosic contributions from the woodwind principals, especially the clarinettist Nicholas Carpenter. The work juxtaposes melancholic and lively dances, and Jurowski’s handling of the tempo changes and dynamic contrasts was impressive. In the final dance, for example, his build-up to the climax (interrupted by beautifully hushed woodwind solos) was breathtaking.

Bartok’s Piano Concerto No.1 is the least performed of his three concertos at the Proms. This concerto displays the barbaric side of Bartok’s music and the piano is percussive, at times even violent. It was interesting to see the timpani and the percussions, who play a vital role in this work, placed on either side of the piano at the front of the stage, and the whole wind section behind the violas on the right-hand side. The soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gave an admirable performance, but for me, the performance didn’t quite ignite until the third movement. I think part of this had to do with the acoustics of where I was sitting (in the stalls), but to me the piano sounded underpowered and even in the second movement his playing didn’t seem hard-edged enough. However, in the final movement, the piano and orchestra gained momentum and culminated in a thrilling finish.

Bavouzet then offered an encore, “Invocation” from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, giving us a taster of the second half. It was a passionate and evocative performance and he was finally able to fully display his brilliant pianism.

TV Broadcast on BBC Four on Friday 29 July