thu 18/08/2022

BBC Proms: Bavouzet, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Bavouzet, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski

BBC Proms: Bavouzet, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski

The Albert Hall gets Hungarian, with a hot gypsy band and a steel-fingered pianist

The world tour that the Proms offer this year touches down in no more fascinating musical country than Hungary, with three of its great composers, Liszt, Bartók and Kodály brought into the Albert Hall last night by the ever-stimulating Vladimir Jurowski with his hot gypsy band, the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

This acoustic is not a happy place for the syncopations and sharp rhythms of Hungarians, who are never afraid of a silence or a missed heartbeat, never rush to end a note when they can increase the suspense by holding it. As a result, Kodaly’s Dances of Galánta had a rougher ride than Bartók’s First Piano Concerto or the Titanic fantasy of Liszt’s Faust Symphony.


In Zoltán Kodály's home town of Galánta the gypsies defined the entertainment, with stamping boots and swaying hips, wild laughter and lusty glances. This variety of folkloric colour is what makes Dances of Galánta such fun to listen to (and to imagine dancers with). And one possibly shouldn't ignore that Kodály was born into a railway family, and the clank and inexorable momentum of trains must have been embedded in his psyche. But last night, for Jurowski to drag a deep-girdled and seductive pulse out of the Kensington Gore cavern for the live listener - or this one, in this seat - may have been rather like attempting to dance a csárdás underwater, all natural odds weighted against.

I’m guessing that in the broadcast most of the echo problems weren’t heard, since Jurowski’s laser-cut traffic policeman's signals must, at mic-distance, have delivered equally laser-cut syncopations for the deep-squatting cellos and dizzy whirling as well as the skipping pizzicatos and flute rills which were the only clear elements from my seat. It’s giddy party music, and the Albert Hall isn’t a place for a dance. It’s more a film set for music, and in that regard, and considering the cleverness of today’s microphones, it does just fine.

Pianist Jean Efflam BavouzetWhile this echo also threw clouds around Béla Bartók’s acerbically rhythmical First Piano Concerto, the ebullient involvement between the energetic French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Jurowski and the LPO, all intent on cutting the space with the music, made this enormously good value. The percussionists were ranged at front stage for once, either side of the piano, which in the second movement in particular very clearly becomes a member of the orchestra's rhythm section.

The phrase “machine music” was used about Stravinsky’s ragingly fashionable piano style in the 1920s, and Bartók’s response to that powerful stimulant was to compose in 1926 a bristling mechanical piano display, of all the percussive capabilities that a huge modern box of wood and wire can deliver in barbed rhythms, hammered discords and icy shards of notes. In fact the surprises are to hear flashes of Debussyan or Rachmaninovian pianism in there too, as well as Bach toccatas or jagged echoes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

These are not overwhelming references, so much as contemporary flavours from the experimental Twenties, a fabulous era for music, and in the second, marvellous movement, we’re in pure Bartók-land, with the piano alone with the mysterious rustles and rattles of percussion and a few stark horns. This was hauntingly played with a surprising amount of gradation in dynamics filtered through by Jurowski, conducting the percussion behind his back, his bony left hand snaking backwards to pinch, squeeze, clutch, splay and punch the players to absolute precision.

No fear of Bavouzet losing the pulse with his steely fingers and flawless rhythmic drive. It was just a pity that he chose for his encore something thunderous by Liszt, Invocation, mostly indistinct hammering, but not so indistinct that we didn’t hear a big bad smudge at the end. I wished he’d played some more Bartók.

'That bipolar despair and certainty in the Faust movement is perverted with a deliciously savoury malevolence in the Mephistopheles movement'

Then to the evening’s leviathan, Liszt’s moodily magnificent Faust Symphony, a piece familiar to all lovers of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet-tragedy, Mayerling, whose story is suitably purple with horrors. The other side of Liszt's showmanship (see Invocation, above) is his fearlessness in storming into depths, using that Hungarian rhythmic boldness to stretch out long low plaints into the shadows, searching with music into some very dark places indeed. The cellos and violas provide timbres of unutterable despair that no high violins and flutes can mitigate. He's a great colourist.

There are thrilling altercations between protesting violins and insisting brass, build-ups of Wagnerian sumptuousness on horns and trombones. Although Liszt is always preoccupied with melody and harmonic richness, that Hungarian sense of daring to defy the balanced, the four-square, keeps almost all his work lively, even when the flamboyant theatricality becomes repetitious.

The bipolar despair and triumph in the portrayal of Faust in the first movement is perverted with a deliciously savoury malevolence in the third, Mephistopheles movement, Faust’s tunes now tainted with poisonous vapours and whispered mockery. The selection of orchestral colour is breathtaking, brilliantly delivered last night by the LPO. In a more sympathetic acoustic I suspect Jurowski wouldn't have to try so hard to clip out every minutest fragment of rhythm - the Albert Hall is not an ideal place to be Hungarian in.

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