Smetana: Šárka; Beethoven: Symphony No 6; Bartόk: Piano Concerto No. 3

Radu Lupu; The Hallé/Cristian Mandeal

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 9 November 2008 4 stars

Radu Lupu

Šárka, the third symphonic poem from Smetana's cycle Má Vlast [My Country], is not a pretty story. According to the legend, Šárka is a beautiful Czech maiden who, betrayed in love, decides to seek vengeance on all men. She tricks a group of soldiers who are led by the knight Ctirad (and who falls in love with Šárka) and murders them with her followers.

Although the story is not marked in the score, Smetana depicts it in five parts: 1) Šárka decides on vengeance; 2) Ctirad and his men arrive; 3) Ctirad falls in love; 4) during revelries the soldiers' wine is drugged (or, depending on which source one reads, the soldiers binge-drink so much that they fall asleep); 5) all the men are murdered.  

Conductor Cristian Mandeal delivered an exciting but disciplined performance. His control over the piano passages – which at times he achieved with his left hand dropping almost to his knee – was particularly impressive. As befitting a folk legend, the performance was atmospheric, although occasionally the tightness of ensemble slackened. The arrival of Ctirad and his men was portrayed with strong rhythm while the excellently-played exposed clarinet solos – presumably representing Ctirad in love – convinced more of passionate determination than of longing. I am puzzled by the programme notes – for this piece written by Miki Swann – according to which Ctirad falls in love with Šárka to the accompaniment of a duet for cello and clarinet. Although one of the clarinet solos is followed by a short cello solo, there is no clarinet-cello duet in the score.  

We don't need to guess the story line in Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, that is, in the Pastoral Symphony. Beethoven is very specific with his title for the work – Recollection of Country Life, More Expression of Feeling than Painting – and with his titles for the five movements. Barry Cooper's programme notes provide information, insight and inspiration which must have been helpful to members of the audience. Mandeal's structured performance with its excellent tempi and great many shades of dynamics was enjoyable and the Hallé shined. The second violins provided unusually sensitive support, flute and oboe played heart-warmingly beautifully and the horns plus brass were rock solid.  

Cristian MandealSome of the programme notes (by Gerald Larner) for Bartόk's Piano Concerto No. 3 – which followed Šárka in the concert – are unhelpful. Larner occupies two and a half pages (although Barry Cooper manages his notes in one and a half for the Pastoral Symphony) but more than a page is taken up by Larner's thoughts on 'How Hungarian Was Bartόk?'. Some of Larner's statements are questionable and some – such as how good a pianist Bartόk was – are immeasurable. Although Larner speaks for Bartόk, not against him, some of his negative comments detract (and are, in my opinion, untrue).

Radu Lupu gave an extra-ordinary performance of the concerto, which was Bartόk's last completed work (save the final seventeen bars, which he did not orchestrate). It seems to be customary – although, in my opinion, wrong – to play Bartόk in a very percussive style. But the dedicatee of this work was Ditta, Bartόk's second wife, whose piano playing style as well as physical/psychological make-up was more lyrical than percussive. Lupu's lyricism was the basic tenet throughout his performance. He sings the music in his mind – whether his own part or any other part in the score – all the way through. Although the solo piano part first enters in the second half of the second bar, Lupu's performance starts right at the beginning: his body lives the music from the first note.

In Lupu's interpretation the first movement was more melodic than virtuoso orientated; the scherzo-like section pleased with gentle humour but the dance rhythms did not lose their robust accents. The final eight bars, the dialogue between piano and woodwind, gave us chamber music at its best. The Adagio religioso second movement seemed slower than usual although the hymn theme might have been just more majestic. The bird-song motive provided another intimate chamber music exchange between woodwind and piano. The main theme of the last movement gave us a jolly folk dance – rather than the more usual aggressive drumming of the piano chords – while the fugue episode was imitation baroque music on the highest possible level.

I have heard Bartόk's Piano Concerto No. 3 many times but Radu Lupu's performance showed me new aspects. I am certain that on some future occasion Lupu would create new dimensions, so I am looking forward to those further opportunities.

By Agnes Kory

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