Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bartok/Ligeti Climax Bartok Project

Posted on "Music in Cincinnati," Mary Ellyn Hutton's blog, on 3/14/09

Those who heard Paavo Järvi conduct the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Ligeti 's Concert Romanescu Friday night (March 13) at Music Hall may justly feel cheated. Unless they return for tonight’s repeat (8 p.m. at Music Hall), tune in for a broadcast later this season on Cincinnati's local public radio station, or wait for the next time Järvi and the CSO perform the Bartok and Ligeti, they will not hear this remarkable pairing again. To help weather the economic downturn, all CSO recording activities have been suspended. Sadly, the next CD in line for production (by Telarc, which just coincidentally, has gone out of business) was a Bartok/Ligeti album to have included the two works on this program. It would have been an important addition to the orchestra’s recorded legacy. (One can only hope that some kind of underwriting can be found to pick up the slack and keep this orchestra among the documented front rank of the profession.) Guest artist for the concert was Canadian pianist Louis Lortie in a very rewarding performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K.467. Bartok has been a focus of CSO programming this season, and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, his masterpiece, was the fitting climax. This 1936 work is one of the musical wonders of the 20th century. Crafted to the nth degree of mathematical detail (the bane of much contemporaneous music) it is music that nevertheless touches the emotions. If the Fibonacci series is not what one goes to concerts to hear (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc.), Bartok’s music is. The CSO strings were divided into halves, one on the left, the other on the right side of the stage, with the percussion along the back, and the piano, celesta and harp on the left. The first sound heard, the violas pronouncing the sinuous fugue theme that opens the Andante tranquilo, was astonishingly soft and smooth, with no blurred edges. As the other voices entered, weight and tension built to a climax, and then faded back in retrograde motion to the same pitch with which the movement began. The vigorous Allegro that followed featured Bartok’s signature snap pizzicato (raising the string and letting it strike the fingerboard) and vibrant, sometimes dance-like rhythms where Järvi made it twinkle. Percussionist Richard Jensen opened the Adagio – an example of Bartok’s trademark “night music” -- by tapping out a Fibonacci sequence on the xylophone, followed by timpanist Patrick Schleker’s soft pedal glissandi and a mournful melody by the violas. There were insect-like trills and glissandi by the second violins, which became a veil of night creatures as Heather MacPhail on celesta, Gillian Benet Sella on harp and Michael Chertock on piano successively entered. The atmosphere cleared in the finale, a merry, folk-like movement with strummed pizzicato and a prominent return of the fugue subject from the first movement. Everywhere in the work, ensemble was precise, details were integrated and lines were shaped for the utmost musical effect. The CSO showed their appreciation for Järvi’s leadership by applauding him even before taking their own bows at the end. Lortie followed with what Järvi described in his “First Notes” video as a “taste of lemon sorbet” between courses” (of Bartok and Ligeti). It was far more, however, than a palate cleanser in this elegant collaboration. The opening Allegro featured Lortie’s own cadenza, in Mozartian style but with some daring harmonic excursions. There was a collective sigh in the audience during the lovely Andante (whose theme was popularized in the film “Elvira Madigan”). Lortie emoted tastefully here and Järvi pumped tenderness into the orchestral accompaniment. The concluding Allegro vivace had Lortie in perfect sync with the CSO and the crowd on their feet at the end. Sleeper on the program was Ligeti’s 1951 Concert Romanesc (Romanian Concerto). A mini-concerto for orchestra pre-dating his later modernist style, it follows in the folkloric tradition of fellow Hungarians Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly. Ligeti’s inspiration for the work was Romanian folk song, which he knew growing up in Romania (then a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) and later studied in Bucharest. The opening Andantino began with a lovely unison melody by muted strings, (similar according to Peter Laki’s excellent program notes), to a Romanian Christmas carol. Järvi shaped it with his hands as it took on harmony. He reverted quickly to his baton for the succeeding Allegro, a brief, brisk movement where piccoloist Joan Voorhees and the winds exchanged spirited licks with concertmaster Timothy Lees. In the Adagio that followed, principal French hornist Elizabeth Freimuth was answered from the balcony by associate principal Thomas Sherwood. (Both played, according to the composer’s directions, in valve-less horn style, i.e. using natural overtones, which don’t always sound “in tune” to our ears.) English hornist Christopher Philpotts lent sonic beauty to this soulful movement. Jarvi pulled out all the stops in the Molto vivace finale. Lees led a Transylvanian hoedown on his violin, with echoes by principal second violinist Gabriel Pegis and principal violist Victor de Almeida, and there were some highly evocative effects such as strings playing on the bridges of their instruments. George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsodies came to mind more than once as the excitement grew. There was a prominent clash of harmony by trumpets a semi-tone apart near the end, an infamous moment that got Ligeti’s work banned by the Stalinist authorities in Hungary, who allowed nothing of the kind to sully the wholesome soviet realist art approved by the Communist regime. (Ligeti left the country for good soon afterward.) The bottom seemed to drop out of the music finally, leaving Lees noodling high on the violin and Pegis sounding colorful harmonics. The horn calls of the third movement returned briefly and everything hovered in suspension before the final, delayed stinger chord. The concert repeats at 8 p.m. tonight at Music Hall.

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