January 31, 2011 5:47 pm

Infernal Dance, RFH, London

All things Hungarian are in fashion this year. Only a week after the double celebrations to mark Hungary’s presidency of the Council of the European Union and the bicentenary of the birth of Franz Liszt, the Philharmonia Orchestra is embarking on “Infernal Dance” – a year-long programme devoted to the music of Béla Bartók, the Hungarian 20th-century composer.

The concept of large-scale series of concerts devoted to a single composer is far from new in London, but the Philharmonia has given the idea its own slant. As well as devising a broad range of supporting events that embraces chamber music and lectures, the orchestra will be taking its main concerts to 11 European cities, including Paris, Brussels, Rome, Madrid and Vienna.

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It must take quite a bit of momentum to get a programme of this size off the ground and “Infernal Dance” made a cracking start at the Royal Festival Hall last Thursday. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonia’s principal conductor, is at his best when pace and rhythm are called for (quite often in Bartók) and a pair of big orchestral scores – one early and little-known, the other a searing masterpiece – was a good way to begin.

It was not until 1966, 20 years after his death, that Bartók’s first big orchestral essay, Kossuth, had its debut UK performance. Whatever did people think of it? By that time the mature Bartók was well known and this slice of youthful excess must have seemed an odd concoction. Like an extravagant Richard Strauss tone poem lifted out of its German comfort zone and given a wild Hungarian edge, Kossuth is a heady piece to welcome once in a while if the performers give it their all – which Salonen and the Philharmonia certainly did.

The experimental side of Bartók came to the fore in the Piano Concerto No 1, and though the journey into its far-flung sound-world might have carried a greater air of mystery, soloist Yefim Bronfman’s rhythmic certainty sealed the performance with an air of authority. Then The Miraculous Mandarin brought the concert to a scalding finish. Played complete, including the wordless extra chorus, this violent ballet score roused Salonen and the Philharmonia to some devilishly intense playing. The “Infernal Dance” has kicked off in style.

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