Esa-Pekka Salonen and Christian Tetzlaff in Bartók with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall

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Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók

Philharmonia Orchestra
Royal Festival Hall , London
Jun 23, 2011
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Christian Tetzlaff, violin
Kodály – Dances of Galanta
Bartók – Violin Concerto No. 2
Concerto for Orchestra

The saint of Bleaker Street. Morose, manic, and methodical. They all alliterate with Magyar, the Hungarian spirit that ran through Bartók, and each term applies to his music. But the saddest match would be martyr. In God’s calculus of gifts, to those who suffer most, the most is given. Bartók’s soul must have believed in that formula. Like the other two titans of modernism, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, he was triply alienated, being a genius, an expatriate, and a logician of the abstruse. All three composers were forced to deal with their complex fates, yet Bartók made of his a via dolorosa. Leukemia brought death when he was still flowering fiercely, at 64, ending an existence in New York of anxious semi-poverty. In photos his face is wise but vaguely Kafkaesque, both qualities being heightened as he grew more ill. Like Mother Teresa and other penitents who wore the cilice, a ring of barbed wire around their thighs, lest they forget that the world is pure suffering, Bartók embraced the pitiless side of harmony.

There is a famous moment in his most popular work, the Concerto for Orchestra (1944), where Bartók shoots the rudest of Bronx cheers at Shostakovich—the japery was occasioned by the brouhaha surrounding Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, the “Leningrad,” a wartime work that Bartók considered inane and vulgar. Nowhere else in his output is there a joke, smile, or levity that I know of. Even here, when the trombones uncork a raspberry, it’s more a grimace than a grin. The man behind me laughed, though, during the performance given by the Philharmonia in Royal Festival Hall last night. We were all in good spirits, because Esa-Pekka Salonen led a spectacularly virtuosic reading of the Concerto. He is the Chilly Willy of current conductors, capable of putting even the irrepressible Berlioz in a deep freezer and robbing Tristan of his aphrodisiac.

Maybe it’s the Finno-Ugric connection that turns Salonen into a naughty boy where Bartók is concerned. (The two languages exist in the same vacuum chamber, related only to each other and a few more obscure tongues.) He whipped up his beat almost but not quite into a frenzy. He relaxed with broad gestures when the music soared affectionately—a rare moment worth relishing in Bartók—and the brass section erupted furiously when they could. They had been informed in advance that they would not be arrested for reckless endangerment.

It was possible, in other words, for everyone to sit back and truly enjoy Bartók. Today, when any dissonant train wreck is accepted with mild bemusement by concert goers, there’s austere bliss in Bartók. This night’s concert included two of his easier masterpieces, the other besides the Concerto for Orchestra being the Second Violin Concerto (1937-38), in which he allows his talent for outright beauty to escape its confinement. Yet even here he slashes, burns, shrieks, and moans. I felt a wince come to my face quite often. Yet once you are attuned, Bartók’s crown of thorns is a halo. (The American composer Ned Rorem once commented that Bartók had the gaze of a saint—this is seconded by various others—but that it was a penetrating beam that went right through you.)

In the violin concerto the German virtuoso Christian Tetzlaff argued the strongest possible case for the music’s turbulent greatness. Bartók reinvented the piano by turning it into a savage percussion instrument. With the violin he remained truer to gypsy fiddling—indeed, post concert there was a Hungarian folk group playing in the lobby, and their whirling, skirling manner was identical to the opening of the fifth movement of the Concerto for Orchestra. Tetzlaff displays a rare combination of technique and acumen; he broke the concerto down into episodes of contrasting colors. I had forgotten how schizoid this work is, switching in an instant from merry to moody, manic to melancholy, misanthropic to mysterious. Genius is chary of sharing its secrets, and you can’t figure out how Bartók manages to hold these jangled segments together.

But he does, and Tetzlaff, aided by the clinician in Salonen, gave us an x-ray of the process. Simple scrapes and slides were turned into a complete vocabulary. At one point the violin sounded like a cimbalom, the hammered folk instrument of Hungary. I think Bartók is shortchanged for his ability at orchestration, which for color and variety, not to mention innovation, surely equals Stravinsky’s. (Who before him had the audacity to portray gruesome physical torture musically, as happens in The Miraculous Mandarin?) He is a master of ghostly night music—the concerto’s second movement contains some—as well as of ghoulish horror. The latter is one of Bartók’s Transylvanian traits (in the Bram Stoker sense), and he must have felt that the finale wasn’t scary enough without having a trombone go berserk, like Cujo breaking out of Bedlam.

Never as much was I aware of Bartók as a precise anarchist, too, worthy to stand beside Kandinsky, who also splashes chaos around in brilliant hues and yet roots his designs in precise mathematical figures. (The violin concerto casually nods to Schoenberg’s methods by surreptitiously devising three themes that use all twelve notes of the scale.) Throughout, the Philharmonia musicians clearly enjoyed themselves, as they must enjoy Salonen, whose stick technique is so alert and meticulous. Only occasionally did he lapse into aloof anomie. The “Game of Pairs” in the Concerto for Orchestra turned into a boring twittering machine, and the slow movement had all the affect of a sad Saks mannequin.

Since the chilly episodes were not often, Salonen had a triumph, broadcast via BBC 3, and the audience went wild, a reaction precisely calculated into the final page of the Concerto for Orchestra. The evening began with Kodály’s Dances of Galanta, a folksy riff on Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies, if a bit mild. The coloration was vivid enough, but it paled beside Bartók’s. The womanizing, carelessly glamorous Liszt ended his life as a gloomy religious recluse, and one can muse that he might have reincarnated as Bartók, who seems to have been born that way. But the cilice is worn in secret, and for all we know what Bartók wore under his cassock was something less excruciating than barbed wire. Not a stash of chocolate éclairs, certainly, but maybe a blood red lollipop—even martyrs want a taste of sugar.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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