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June 28, 2011 5:51 pm

Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London

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Patrons of the Philharmonia Orchestra can get themselves a good deal, if they plan carefully. About half a dozen times a year the orchestra’s main evening concert is preceded by a free event in its series “Music of Today”, which introduces a wide spread of contemporary works played by ensembles drawn from within the orchestra.

It is a bonus when the two programmes have a connection. On Thursday, they shared a common theme in the music of Hungary. Esa-Pekka Salonen was due to conduct the latest instalment of “Infernal Dance”, the year-long survey of the music of Béla Bartók, and the early evening concert included just one seminal work, The Messages of the Late Miss RV Troussova by György Kurtág, Bartók’s Hungarian successor.

This was like looking at music in Hungary down different ends of the telescope. There are few works in the contemporary repertoire as inward-looking as Kurtág’s song cycle for soprano, written in 1976-80 and his first international success. Each of its 21 miniatures is like a flower being squeezed ever tighter in the hand until it yields an intense specific emotion – nicely realised here, even if soprano Susan Narucki was sometimes lost under the instrumental ensemble, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann. This was the last of the “Music of Today” series to be organised by composer Julian Anderson, who has enjoyed an excellent run as artistic director for the past nine years.

The evening concert was a corker. If Kurtág is introspective, then the Bartók of the late works heard in this concert shows Hungarian music going out to embrace the world. Having made a blistering start with Kodály’s Dances of Galánta as a colourful Hungarian curtain-raiser, Salonen was joined by Christian Tetzlaff as soloist in Bartók’s Violin Concerto No.2. Adding some Hungarian fire to his usual clean attack and rhythmic precision, Tetzlaff turned up the heat to scalding effect.

This was an exciting performance and so was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra at the hair-raising speeds Salonen set. Maybe he does not feel the music’s soulful roots in the folk tradition like some leading Hungarian conductors of the past, but Salonen’s treatment of the work as pure 20th-century music to be polished till it dazzled was exhilarating. Good value indeed.

5 stars

Southbank Centre

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