Bartók: Miraculous Mandarin Suite; Salonen: Piano Concerto, Debussy and Janácek's Sinfonietta

Bronfman, Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen

Usher Hall, 24 August 2009 3.5 stars

Yefrim Bronfman by dario acosta
August has been a busy month for the Philharmonia Orchestra. First resident at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford, then taking a turn at the Proms on Monday, now if it's Wednesday it must be Edinburgh, with visits to Helsinki, Lucerne and Grafenegg (Austria) still to come. Crikey!

The point of mentioning this, though, is not wonderment at the coordination, the logistics, or the stamina required, but rather bewilderment at what seemed to be a tired, flaccid performance tonight. Not a disastrously obvious tiredness, but an off-colour, out-of-focus, not-quite-there kind of feeling that took the edge off the deliciously sharp flavours promised by the chosen repertoire.

It isn't as though something had been left behind at a previous venue: one of the remarkable things about this busy period is the breadth of repertoire, from Haydn and Mendelssohn to Andriessen and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The Bartók and the Janácek appear on the Edinburgh programme only; perhaps programming two such challenging works was overly ambitious.

Such a seat-of-the-pants approach isn't out of keeping with the aesthetic background of the Miraculous Mandarin, to be fair. The score emerges from the same milieu that gave us Berg's Lulu and the Brecht-Weill collaborations like Mahagonny—heard at last year's Edinburgh Festival (see link at bottom of page). Salty, salacious, sailing close to the wind, Bartók's demanding score is full of angst-backed joie de vivre, but this performance was a bit like a mid-festival morning, when your enthusiasm for the day ahead is tempered with the need to recover from the night before.

If things were tighter for the Salonen piano concerto, there would be a certain droit de seigneur about that. This is a work of considerable weight, ambition and energy, although the weight is in some sense at odds with the ambition. In its overall effect, the concerto sits alongside such works as the concertos of Prokofiev, Khachaturian or Martinu, while the programme note speaks to the ambition of rubbing shoulders with more radical voices such as Messiaen or Ligeti. What gets lost, perhaps, is the sense of a central rhetorical line that would be idiosyncratically Salonen. Nevertheless, it is an effective and substantial achievement; Yefrim Bronfman's professorial demeanour at the piano signals an intelligent virtuosity that was realized with disciplined ebullience in performance.

After the interval, Debussy's Prélude ŕ l'aprčs-midi d'un faune, and a sense, here, in this work that is all about limpid flow, that the feng shui was somehow awry. It is hard to put into words, but melodic lines seemed to be running in canals rather than their natural riverbeds.

Still, it is always a joy to be reacquainted with Janácek's idiosyncratic Sinfonietta. Few works in the classical repertoire receive such varying interpretations as this one, and it is interesting to compare, for instance with Boulez's reading at last year's Proms. That was a surprise, not so much because of Janácek's supposedly 'provincial' persona being at odds with the long-established metropolitan high-modernism of Boulez. Rather, it is the way in which Janácek resists that modernist style of analytical approach while flaunting qualities that inspire curiosity and wonder.

I'm not sure that either Boulez or Salonen really managed to climb inside. Listening to Salonen's reading, it dawned on me that the normal serial architecture of music is at odds with Janácek's ear for dialogue: this is much more about Bakhtinian dialogic than it is dialectic, with voices butting in, repeating themselves, digressing, shouting from the background, yet somehow ending up in agreement. It makes for an interesting comparison with Bartok, similarly orally grounded, but with more of an emphasis, in Bartok's case, on instrumental performance.

So, if this performance was lacking in 'shoulder', the capacity to create a physical sense of movement in the listener (this one anyway), it yielded insight—and one should always be grateful for that

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Yefrim Bronfman by Dario Acosta


stkildaRelated articles:

Concert Review: Salonen and the Philharmonia at the Proms
Music Theatre review: St Kilda at the Edinburgh Festival
Concert Review: The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny last year's Edinburgh Festival

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