Bartók: The Wooden Prince; Liszt: Piano Concerto No 2 Dvorák: Symphony No 9

Jean-Yves Thibaudet; London Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop

Barbican Hall, London, 14 November 2008 4.5 stars

Marin Alsop

The latest concert from the LSO's Last Words Series had nothing less than Dvořák's much-loved Ninth (and indeed, last) Symphony as its 'read-thread' piece, coupled up with Bartók's The Wooden Prince and Liszt's Second Piano Concerto. 

The evening opened with a truly dazzling performance of the orchestral suite version of Bartók's The Wooden Prince— originally a ballet — under Marin Alsop's baton. I owe to Alsop the pleasure of being introduced to Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin at the Royal Festival Hall, several years ago. There is no doubt that Bartók is one of Alsop's best-loved composers. While she conducts The Wooden Prince the music seems to be wired into her muscles; her extreme physical expressivity — who needs a ballet when you can watch her? — is combined with great precision, and generous cueing to her players.

The Wooden Prince is a composite piece, comprising sweeping string writing (the C major opening, with its elemental, rising fourth, soaring from double basses to violins), the Bartókian magic concoction of winds, harps and celesta , as well as giddy dance sections — topped by the composer's beloved xylophone. Alsop was able to convey the ever-changing musical surface with great poetry — the unexpectedly gentle end of the suite, with the haunting horn tune shot through with the light of the celesta filigree, was enough to send shivers down anyone's spine.

Liszt's Second Piano Concerto followed, performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Liszt's Piano Concerto takes the form of one extended movement, with no inner subdivisions. Indeed, the piece is held together by the opening melody, an irresistible handful of chromatically falling notes — behind which undoubtedly lurks Liszt's son-in-law and colleague, Richard Wagner.

Often piano concertos can turn into terribly dated pieces because of their grandiloquent flair. This has to be carefully considered if a modern performance is not to cause a few sniggers. Thibaudet's composure was exemplary in this respect. What is most refreshing about this performer is his extreme clarity of timbre—the ability to keep this up in the chromatic octave runs in the lower register is no ordinary feat — and his extreme precision with the harmonics pedal. Thibaudet switched effortlessly between cross-keyboard flourishes and gentle arpeggiation when underpinning the beautifully conveyed cello and oboe soli. The performance was a definite success, proving that Romantic Concertos can be handled tastefully and skilfully in the modern concert hall.

We think of 'Last Words' as sober, often unpopular works that have been written for their own sake, independently of monetary matters, as 'statements' of the composer's inner beliefs in the face of death. Dvořák's Ninth, however, is his best loved piece and a universally acknowledged classic.  Perhaps this is to do with the fact that this piece was written for a specific purpose: Dvořák was paid to train young American composers to come up with music that was full of national pride, and he wrote this symphony to pretty much show the way forward.

The 'New World' of the title is then sneaked into this most European-sounding symphony by means of the quotations of little American folk-tunes — which are almost unfailingly worked from their delicate fabric into heroic climaxes. Although the loud triumphalism of this music can saturate the mind long before the end of the symphony, it is undeniable that the superb compositional skill is compelling. This has to be especially true of the last movement, where all the themes of the symphony are dazzlingly weaved into one another, proven to be part of the same thing.

Although her conducting didn't have the explosive quality it had with the Bartok, Alsop was again both competent and energic, causing a good few ripples of enthusiastic applause in between movements. The final enthusiastic applause earned the audience and encore — Dvořák's joyful C major Slavonic Dance, in keeping with the vibe of the Symphony. One does wish that Alsop had chosen something a little subtler to end the concert, perhaps something to bring back the sinister beauty of the Bartok, but these are minor quibbles. All in all this was a fantastic concert with first rate performances all around, making one look forward to the rest of the Last Words Series. 

By Delia Casadei

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