The vast riches of the Bohemian tradition were in the centre of focus for Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker in their programme for the concert on Thursday evening at the Philharmonie, featuring pieces by Dvořák, Bartók and Janáček, all bearing elements of Bohemian folklore.
The centerpiece of the programme was Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (1925-26), a piece of dazzling imagination clad in pronounced rhythmic garb and that unique dark hue, all within a formidably elaborated structural framework.
Coincidentally, the Bartók concerto was the very same piece with which Daniel Barenboim, the soloist of the evening, made his Berliner Philharmoniker debut fifty-four years ago with Pierre Boulez conducting.
Barenboim and Rattle, the key figures in the music scene of the city, have shared the stage on several occasions after their first collaboration in 2004 featuring Brahms’ First Concerto.
In his First Piano Concerto Bartók sets forth to study the various possibilities of the keyboard. Harking back to the baroque models on one hand, and looking forward to the 20th century perspectives of the piano as a percussion instrument, Bartók weaves the piano together with the orchestra, hereby making his departure from the soloist-versus-the-orchestra scheme of the romantic concerto.
The percussion section serves, in fact, as an extension to the keyboard, something Bartók would later went on to explore in full with works like Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). A somewhat similar approach is evident throughout the score of Stravinsky’s Les Noces (1913-1923). More recently, Boulez, in his late masterpiece sur Incises (1996-1998/2006), has demonstrated, with sublime elegance, the family resemblance of the piano and percussion instruments.
In his score, Bartók asks the percussion instruments to be placed right behind the piano, a stage setup not often employed, due practical reasons. At the Philharmonie stage, the percussion, apart from the timpani, was placed left, right behind the second violins. This solution worked very well acoustically and enabled the percussionists to communicate with the conductor with ease.
The concerto opens with a series of pulsating low B’s from the piano and timpani. An opening brass statement is soon to follow and the music ensues with crisp harmonies and rhythmic propulsion characteristic to the first movement. Barenboim’s take on the solo part was inspiringly intense with certain flexibility of phrasing securing the music from the perils of a mechanistic approach more than occasionally encountered in performances of this concerto.
The orchestra was admirably balanced by Rattle. The irregular accents and constantly varying time signatures were carefully carried out resulting in a whirlwind of orchestral energy unleashed within an elaborate control.
The second movement is one of those marvellously Bartókian night musics so unlike any other music, before or after. Here Bartók sets in motion yet another pulse, subtly carried out by the solo piano and percussion fused together as one instrument. The score calls for close attention to the types beats employed by percussionists to control the timbral finesses.
The orchestra enters gradually with musical material dressed in various sonorities within the movement’s ABA structure. Rarely have I been so enthralled with these passages as now with Barenboim, the splendid musicians of the BPh and Rattle living and breathing with the music in perfect unison.
A transitory passage with syncopated pulse leads to the finale, a tour-de-force of untamed dance rhythms calling for close attention to phrasing and ensemble playing in order to keep the music on track through this primordial ritual in sound. Again, the performance was pristine achieving an admirable balance between the barbaric and the civilized aspects of the score.
After enthusiastic applauses Barenboim returned to the keyboard with a beautiful performance of La fille aux cheveax de lin from the first book of the Préludes (1909-10) by Debussy, the herald of modernism who passed away 100 years ago.
Alongside the Bartók concerto there were the pieces of Dvořák and Janáček on the programme. The first half of the evening was devoted to the second set of Slavonic Dances (Op. 72) composed by Antonín Dvořák in 1886 by request of his publisher to augment his immensely popular first set composed some eight years earlier and published as his Op. 46.
Originally written for piano four hands and subsequently orchestrated by the composer, both opuses comprise of eight dances based on characteristically bohemian idioms altering between major and minor keys with a wide range of moods from almost furious joy to subtle melancholy.
Whereas the first set of Slavonic Dances was based on actual folk melodies, in his second set Dvořák devised melodies if his own, bearing characters of folklore. A procedure later extensively employed by composers like Sibelius and, of course, Bartók.
For the record, it must be said that my reaction to Slavonic Dances has always been less than enthusiastic. For some reason, I’ve often felt myself more than a bit of a stranger to these sonorities. But not tonight! For the first time of my many encounters with these dances I felt genuinely inspired, uplifted and indeed touched by their world.
As with his splendid performances of Haydn, Rattle and the orchestra brought riveting earthiness to these miniature adventures into Dvořák’s imagination. Delicious, deeply rooted grunts of the lower strings, soaring violin lines, most imaginative woodwind and brass passages and the perfectly realized colours of the percussion instrumets all fused together into one joyous experience cast away all my reservations and resulted in a most enjoyable concert experience. A most welcome surprise!
The evening concluded with the Janáček Sinfonietta written during the exhilarating late period of the composer’s output including masterpieces such as the Glacolitic Mass (1926) and the opera The Cunning Little Vixen (1921-23), the latter being performed with utter beauty by the orchestra and Rattle previously this season.
By calling his piece Sinfonietta, Janáček was referring more to the festive nature of the music than the size of the orchestral forces employed, much like Korngold with his seemingly contradictory Sinfonietta for Large Orchestra (1912-13). In fact, Janáček‘s ensemble is a sizable one featuring a full orchestra with no less than nine trumpets, two bass trumpets and two tenor horns added.
The genesis of Sinfonietta can be traced back to Janáček‘s initial inspiration to write a brass fanfare, which then became a source of an orchestral work in five movements lasting c. 23 minutes. The extra brass is featured in the outer movements, resulting in an arch-like ABCBA-structure, with a sublime central movement marked moderato.
Celebrating the Czech nation, the movements bear subtitles referring to the landmarks of the city of Brno. Yet on a more profound level, the music itself is deeply rooted in the characteristic traits of the Czech folklore, a lifelong sourse of inspiration for Janáček.
There is a wonderful mix of jubilant festivity and autumnal bittersweetness if the Sinfonietta, bearing resemblance to Janáček’s orchestral writing in The Cunning Little Vixen. These moods were vigorously brought to life by the vivid performance of Rattle and the orchestra.
From the opening fanfare to the closing apotheosis, the music was full of evocative power as if one was suddenly transported to a city square in dazzling sunlight and gentle shadows fusing together youthful joy and subtle melancholy of long years into an unique entity of Janáček‘s creative process in full bloom. A perfect ending for an extraordinary evening in music.
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Daniel Barenboim, piano
Antonín Dvořák: Slavonic Dances, Op. 72 (1886)
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1, Sz. 83, BB 91 (1925-26)
Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta (1926)
Thursday, February 22th, 8 pm
c Jari Kallio