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S & H Prom Review

PROM 55: Bartok, Ligeti, Stravinsky, Tasmin Little (vln), Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, Royal Albert Hall, 31st August 2003 (CT)


The placing of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta alongside the Violin Concerto of György Ligeti may on the face of it appear obvious. The greatest Hungarian composer of the first half of the twentieth century teamed up with the greatest Hungarian composer of the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. Yet here, the choice was particularly inspired. Indeed one of the finest programming decisions of this year’s Proms.

The atmosphere of ghostly, other-worldliness captured in the opening movement of the Bartók was immediately arresting, the violins entering on the very edge of audibility - dynamic risks that paid off with consistent effect. The driving, motoric rhythmic writing in the ensuing Allegro had tremendous propulsion if not always-precise rhythmic accuracy, although the notorious and treacherous stabbing off beats on the piano and pizzicato strings were despatched with aplomb. Again in the third movement the palpable sense of shimmering atmosphere, here with major contributions from percussion, piano and celesta, cast a wonderful spell, the dance rhythms of the final Allegro molto, vigorous and effervescent with a sense of genuine exhilaration that is captured in all too few performances.

Interestingly, Rattle chose to deviate from the Proms Prospectus by placing the Ligeti after the interval and not directly after the Bartók as originally programmed. Either way, the contrast, or more to the point the parallels between the two masters were clear. The Bulgarian dance rhythms and folk influenced melodies of the Bartók are all present, yet ingeniously absorbed into Ligeti’s unique, kaleidoscopic and often downright wacky musical world. The work demands a chamber orchestra of soloists whose parts are often as virtuosic as the solo violin and gave a rare opportunity for the audience to hear the orchestra in what may be considered highly uncharacteristic territory. Tasmin Little’s control of the fiendish solo part was quite simply exemplary, the ensemble including scordatura (re-tuned) violin and viola and a band of ocarinas played by the winds, animated and agile. The composer’s challenge to his soloist to provide their own cadenza (placed at the very end of the five movement work) was here taken up by Little and although not always in keeping with Ligeti’s request that it "should be hectic throughout", drew material from the previous movements intelligently and effectively.

Sadly the solo bassoon had not got beyond the taxing first bar of The Rite of Spring before the deafening (and I do not use the word lightly) ring of a mobile phone, the ghastly and dreaded "Nokia" tune at that, emanated from the stalls. Fortunately Rattle had the presence of mind to stop and hang his head whilst gasps of disbelief and choruses of tuts rang equally loudly around the hall. There is little point in stating the obvious thoughts that were no doubt running through the minds of most of those present, although I suspect that one gentleman sitting just in front of me managed to sum those thoughts up quite succinctly when he was heard to mutter quietly but clearly "wanker".

Unfortunately it turned out to be an inauspicious start to a tepid performance. After fine individual playing in the Introduction, Auguries of Spring lacked potency and simply failed to ignite. In Round-dances of Spring the orchestra eventually erupted, yet throughout there was a nagging sense of absent electricity – noise without menace or savagery. The slower sections were perhaps the most successful in this respect, the introduction to Part 2 heavy with foreboding, yet the tension stubbornly failed to sustain itself and despite continued individual playing of quality the performance as a whole lacked penetration and cumulative impact. Put simply, it consistently failed to keep me on the edge of my seat.

The addition of any encore at all would have been questionable after a performance of Le Sacre but Debussy’s orchestration of Satie’s second Gymnopedie sat particularly uncomfortably, albeit not as uncomfortably as the solo oboist who clearly suffered something of a nightmare (the result, I suspect, of a sticky valve) during the initial solo. I for one would sooner have left the hall intoxicated with Tasmin Little’s stunning Ligeti and the finer moments of the Bartók.

Christopher Thomas.



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