Spassov, LSO, Järvi, Barbican Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Spassov, LSO, Järvi, Barbican Hall
Balkan fever proves dangerously contagious
The tabloids are getting shriller every day in their warnings about the army of Bulgarians and Romanians about to descend on British shores, so it’s probably lucky that none of their journalists was present last night at the Barbican to witness an Eastern European musical coup of deadly efficiency. Kristjan Järvi and the London Symphony Orchestra may have cleared the path with a little help from Enescu and Kodály, but it was Bulgarian virtuoso performer-composer Theodosii Spassov – playing an instrument no one had ever heard of – who routed us completely.
The kaval is a “chromatic, end-blown flute” traditionally used by shepherds across Hungary, Turkey, Greece and the present-day Eastern Partnership countries. But it’s safe to assume that none of their hemp-clad herders ever thought to use it quite as Spassov does. The instrument (played more like a clarinet than a contemporary flute) is open at both ends, which comes in handy when you fancy turning it around and blowing it the other way. If that wasn’t enough of a party trick, Spassov also scats (both directly into the kaval and in the more traditional way), sings, and – when doing none of the above – uses it as a percussion instrument.
No gypsy girl could gyrate more skilfully or enthusiastically for our pleasure than Järvi
Spassov has created an entirely new sound and life for this ancient instrument that sits somewhere between folk, film soundtrack and jazz. For anyone who has ever cringed at the try-hard paradox of a jazz flute, the kaval is a revelation – deeper, almost clarinet-like at the bottom, and breathy-flexible at the top. It’s a flute that has enjoyed too many cigarettes and too much sex, whose every colourful wheeze speaks of life lived. In case his credentials for musical cool were still in any doubt however, Spassov (pictured below) brought with him a duo of guitarists. Vlatko Stefanoviski and Miroslav Tadić led the way in the sequence of Spassov’s own orchestral arrangements that were the climax of the evening.
Ranging from folk-kitsch to syncopated jazz frenzy, with moments of Appalachian barn-dance jostling with muezzin-like calls from Spassov himself, this hotch-potch of miniatures was a dance-suite run wild. Acting more as ringmaster than conductor, Järvi throbbed and stamped with the rhythm, grooving along to guitar improvisations between coaxing the LSO strings into swooning action or deploying grenades of brass and percussion. I’m not sure it was all in the best taste, but it was so utterly unknown, so vehemently excellent, that it was impossible to muster rational thought for long enough to judge.
Billed as an evening of “Balkan Fever” (a designation more approximate than strictly accurate) we had opened with Kodály’s Dances of Galánta – a paprika-infused vision of tourist Hungary, all modal scales and exotic flourishes. No gypsy girl could gyrate more skilfully or enthusiastically for our pleasure than Järvi, nor could hope to entice more passion from the LSO, who were clearly enjoying themselves. No matter that the Kodály Variations on a Hungarian Folksong (“The Peacock”) and Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No 1 that followed offered more of the same, giving the impression that we’d strayed into the soundtrack of a 1950s MGM gypsy film, and cried out for a little bit of acerbic Bartók to balance the sooty-eyelashed string portamentos or twinkling-hipped flute sashays. We were all having far too good a time to care.
This wasn’t the kind of concert you’d want every night – altogether too rich, too sugary for everyday consumption. But once in a while a bit of indulgence is exactly what is called for, and last night the LSO were the answer to every craving neglected by a balanced London diet of briskly efficient orchestral standards and bracing contemporary fare.
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