Kurtág: ...quasi una fantasia...; Mozart: K271; Kodály: Mátra Pictures; Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin

BBC SO, Biss/Spano

Barbican, 14 December 2009 4.5 stars

Jonathan Biss credit Jimmy KatzThe programme for the BBC Symphony Orchestra's concert at the Barbican this weekend made little commercial or practical sense on the page: quasi-chamber piece to begin, classical piano concerto to follow, choral suite after the break, and twentieth century ballet – with huge orchestra and chorus – to finish. The amount of musicians required to execute such a programme, not to mention the convoluted tasks required of the stagehands, would seem to obstruct the possibilities of commercial return, as they would its smooth running. Despite these warning signs, however, the concert proved thrilling; absorbing aesthetic and timbral contrasts, matched with skill in interpretation, made for a compelling evening of music.

The concert began with a tantalizing performance of Kurtág's …quasi una fantasia… Op. 27 No. 1. Paul Griffiths suggests in the programme notes that this short and distinctive work somehow counters verbal summary: 'the music is all statement; image or gesture is enough'. The intuitive grasps that we hear across space (with brass and strings being seated above and behind us in the circle), colour (harmonica, cimbalom and recorder feature prominently), dynamic (ppppp to begin, not much louder to close), and form (which is elusive, as usual), seem to bear this impression out. The piece isn’t as uniquely laden as some of the composer's other works, but its peculiar magnetism was well served by the ensemble’s flavoured and careful performance.

Mozart's ninth piano concerto K271 in E flat, that daredevil, swaggered work full of formal and gestural surprise, cast the audience into an entirely other world. Jonathan Biss, already on stage for some glistening contributions to the Kurtág, was the soloist. Biss has a wonderful touch, light and yet full of depth, as is required. His nimble opening salvos were matched by an energised ensemble under Robert Spano (though the number of strings used sometimes seemed to thicken the effervescence), and his mischievous handling of the finale's martial flow was gripping. The plangent slow movement – particularly Biss' cadenza – provided a passionate and sombre counterweight to the other movements' brio. This was a thoroughly charming, fully-realised performance.

After the break James Weeks, the director of the wonderful contemporary music vocal ensemble Exaudi, came on to conduct the BBC Singers in a thrilling performance of Kodály's Mátra Pictures. The work is a continuous suite based on Hungarian folk songs, which it arranges into three separate narratives. The composer is wonderfully inventive with his material, which he coats in Stravinsky-like sprung rhythms, idiomatic harmonic colour, and, most impressively, vocable accompaniments which simulate instrumental gesture, without ever ignoring the full palette of the voice. Weeks coaxed a rousing performance out of the singers, who needed a little encouragement it must be said, but by the end had drawn us into a delightful moment of rustic village cheer.

The concert finished with well over a hundred people on the stage. Spano now restored to the podium, the vast orchestra and chorus almost blew the roof of the Barbican. Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin is one of the most blistering and intense scores in the repertoire, qualities that Spano aggressively pursued in a performance that managed to be both controlled and strong in climax, and also attentive to smaller details of colour and design. The 'enticement' scenes – building from throbbing bass clarinet and low strings ground in the first to dripping, malevolent clarinet flourishes in the latter – framed the shattering climaxes of the three suitors' deaths. The graphic final scenes, with the hysterical juggling of robber and mandarin motifs, were fluently well-handled and persuasively forceful, just as the earlier sections had impressed in detail and climax. This was a strange, but always entertaining, evening of music.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Jonathan Biss by Jimmy Katz

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