Within a well-conceived concert programme, fascinating things can happen. At first glance, one would hardly imagine that a sequence of pieces by Joseph Haydn, Béla Bartók and Edgar Varése would form a logical continuum. Yet that’s precisely what happened on Saturday evening with the Berliner Philharmoniker and François-Xavier Roth.
Alongside being a formidable conductor, Roth has an excellent sense of dramaturgy. His programmes are always both enchanting and cultivating, and this evening was no exception.
The Haydn symphonies are a feast of imagination. One could simply pick any of the one hundred plus scores, and be thoroughly entertained by a deeply musical and illuminating masterpiece. For a concert opener, Roth had chosen the early(ish) Symphony in A Major, dating from c. 1765, the first years of Haydn’s Esterházy engagement.
Scored for two oboes, two horns, strings and continuo, the symphony opens with an energetic tutti burst. However, after a few bars the music suddenly calms down to a complete standstill, to a stunning effect. The music quickly regains momentum, keeping the listener marvellously alerted for the next surprise. On the closing bars, another fade-out occurs, escorting the movement to a subtle ending.
The two inner movements, an andante and a minuet, share the same musical material, connecting the two musical realms together in an interesting way.
The finale opens with an uplifting horn call, setting the music in joyous motion. A passage for oboes and strings ensues, with the horn call reappearing only in the coda.
Performed with spirited energy and eloquent phrasing by Roth and the orchestra, the symphony was a delightful journey through ever-inspiring Haydnesque landscape. Setting the evening well in motion, an apt choice for a concert opener.
Interestingly, the transition from the Haydn symphony to Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945) was a seamless one. With Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist, the concerto was another feast of musicality and invention.
Unlike its two predecessors, the Piano Concerto No. 3 is a sublime affair. Composed when Bartók was mortally ill, writing the concerto was, literally, a heartbreaking race against time. There were three pieces-in-progress at Bartók’s desk during his final months. Alongside the new piano concerto, the composer was writing his Viola Concerto (1945) and sketching a seventh string quartet.
As the illness prevailed, knowing that he would not live to complete both concerti, Bartók eventually had to choose between the two. Somewhat surprisingly, Bartók decided to complete the uncommissioned Third Piano Concerto, instead of the Viola Concerto, commissioned by the violist William Primrose.
The Third Concerto was written as a surprise birthday present for the composer’s second wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók. However, Bartók passed away a month before the birthday, and the closing bars of the concerto were left unfinished. Based on the composer’s sketches, Tibor Szerly, Bartók’s friend, completed the remaining seventeen bars of music.
While the Third Concerto may lack the modernist zeal of the first two concerti, it is nevertheless a magnificent piece. It is also surprisingly difficult to play, despite its more clear-cut appearance. Under its refined surface, there are the key elements of Bartók at play.
The opening movement is based on material dervied from Hungarian folk music. Harmonically, it is a riveting journey into polymodal chromaticism, mixing together various modes, yielding to a fascinating tableau of harmonic colour.
Adagio religioso, Bartók’s final entry in the series of night music reinvented, ensues. Opening with hushed textures for strings and solo piano, the music bears an aura of stillness. The mood changes as the winds enter, with their bird-calls and buzzings. The opening textures return, closing the movement.
The concerto concludes with a finale rondo, a spirited folk-like movement, ravishingly scored for full orchestra.
With combined talents of Aimard, Roth and the Berliners, the concerto was given a dazzling performance. Admirably detailed and formidably balanced throughout, the musicians embraced the Bartók idiom wholeheartedly, with a rousing effect.
As befitting encore, Aimard performed two short piano pieces by György Kurtág, Hommage à Kurtág Martha and Aus der Ferne, commemorating Martha Kurtág’s passing earlier this week. With a spell-like effect, the two miniatures unveiled an universe of their own, rooted in an unparalleled economy of means.
Following the intermission, two 1920s pieces for large orchestra were heard. Commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the towns of Buda, Pest and Óbuda to form Budapest, Bartók’s Dance Suite (1923) yields way beyond mere piece d’occasion. Cast in six movements, the suite is an amalgam of Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian and Arab folk material, clad in opulent orchestral colour.
The six movements vary in tempo, texture and character, giving rise to an unified whole. In genuinely symphonic manner, musical material from previous movements reappear in the finale, providing a sense of conclusion. Within each movement, the dance elements are developed in intriguing ways.
Performed with rhythmic excellence, charm and with, Roth and the orchestra plunged into Bartók’s universalized realm of dance with joy and upbeat energy. A delight!
Stepping into a larger realm with each piece, the evening concluded with Varèse’s vast orchestral canvas, Arcana (1925-27/1960). Premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, Arcana has, unjustly, lingered in the shadow of Amériques (1918-21). While the earlier score bears irresistible sex-appeal of the urban jungle, Arcana is more elusive. Yet, it is more tightly constructed, with ever-transforming alchemy of musical material.
Scored for a massive orchestra, including heckelphone, contrabass clarinet, two double bassoons and a vast percussion section, Arcana sets the stage of cosmic proportions. Opening with a prominent theme, a distant relative of Stravinsky’s Kastchei, the music travels through sounding solar systems, transformed into astounding harmonies and textures.
Within the extended sound palette of the joyously gargantuan orchestra, unforeseen sonorities arise, alluring the listener into the rituals of foreign realms. With both extremes of the dynamic scale at play, Arcana is a compelling demonstration of the orchestra of the 20th century at the height of its expressive powers.
Celebrating the unique imagination of the great modernist outsider, the orchestra and Roth launched into the Varèse universe with relentless commitment, leading to an astounding performance. In a score like this, pacing and balancing are key issues in order to give the music an intelligible sounding guise. With Roth at the helm, he Berliners tackled these challenges with flying colours.
The rhythmic profiles and melodic contours were well-articulated throughout, with admirable focus on colour and nuance. A transcending performace to cherish in joyous memory.
François-Xavier Roth, conductor
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
Joseph Haydn: Symphony in A Major Hob. I: 59 (c. 1765)
Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945)
Béla Bartók: Dance Suite (1923) for orchestra
Edgar Varèse: Arcana (1925-27/1960) for large orchestra
Saturday 26 October 2019, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio
Photos © Stephan Rabold