BartÛk and Szymanowski, Barbican Hall

Where the
first concert
had inserted Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto
between Debussy’s Images and Scriabin’s Poem of
, here Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, the ‘Song of the
Night’ was preceded by two BartÛk works.The Szymanowski symphony provided
a fitting climax, and made for an interesting contrast with another recent
London performance, from Vladimir
Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
. In almost every respect,
Eˆtvˆs’s performance proved superior. Eˆtvˆs’s, or rather
Boulez’s, programme made a great deal more sense too. (There will,
extraordinarily, be a third London performance later in the year, or rather two
performances on 11 and 18 December, again from the LSO, conducted by Valery

In the opening bars, Eˆtvˆs imparted a fine sense of purpose, of onward
tread, which had often been lacking in Jurowski’s somewhat meandering
account. Yet there was no loss of delight in sonority, nor of fantasy from an
LSO very much on top form. Steve Davislim in his opening line, ‘O nie
śpij, druhu, nocy tej,’ (‘O! Sleep not, my dearest friend,
this night’) immediately announced himself more commandingly than
Jurowski’s tenor, more fervent, even possessed, for there was here and
elsewhere a fine sense of mysticism to the performances of all concerned. Where
Jurowski had often skated over the surface and had misplaced one particular
climax, here one truly felt that Eˆtvˆs knew where he was going, climaxes
expertly prepared and executed. Orchestrally and chorally – for the
London Symphony Chorus was on equally wonderful form – this was not just
a magic carpet of sound; it was a carpet that took us somewhere. Eˆtvˆs was, in
that typically Wagnerian dialectic, both more ‘symphonic’ and more
‘musico-dramatic,’ the one quality contributing to the other. Not
only did he exhibit a fine command of rhythm, including harmonic rhythm; he
also communicated musical ‘character’, whether or no
Szymanowski’s ‘song’ embodies an actual ‘story’.
The opening of the second stanza was again noteworthy for Davislim’s
mystical yet commanding performance: ‘Jak cicho. Inni śpia.’
(‘How peaceful it is. All the world is sleeping.’) However, it was
equally remarkable for the Nietzschean stillness (hints of Also sprach
, both in Nietzsche’s and Strauss’s versions,
perhaps of Mahler’s Third Symphony too) from the orchestra and a duly
awestruck chorus. Orchestral memories of Tristan und Isolde soon
verged upon the overwhelming: this is Night, after all. And the chorus sounded
explosions in the heavens. Yes, contra Nietzsche, one can, indeed must,
transcend, even if only momentarily. And was that an echo of another
transfiguration, Schoenberg’s Verkl‰rte Nacht, in the orchestral

BartÛk’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta had found
the LSO’s strings and percussion on fine form too. I very much liked the
questing opening, violas going so far as to evoke the stirrings of
Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. There was a true darkness to Eˆtvˆs’s
performance, almost Romantic, but avowedly of the twentieth century, a darkness
that characterised both mood and trajectory, ‘fearful symmetry’
indeed. And how splendid it was to benefit from a full orchestral string
section, with no half-way house of a chamber compromise. That certainly enabled
a highly dramatic performance of the fugue to emerge, as enveloping, as
arresting a drama, so it seemed, as Bluebeard’s Castle itself.
The second movement benefited from the placing of the violins – crucial
in this of all works – to the extent that one had a sense of versicle and
response, properly ‘antiphonal’ (a word seemingly often employed by
people not entirely sure what it means). Rhythms were sharp without a hint of
showiness. The contrapuntal delights of both work and performance seemed to
evoke Bachian ‘invention’ in more than one sense. (One could hardly
fail to think of Mikrokosmos.) The slow movement was wonderfully
eerie, ‘night music’ that suggested as much a menacing toy kingdom,
a Nutcracker turned sour, as ‘mere’ Nature. And there was
a Bluebeard-like sadness underlying the violence, a vale of tears that
had no need of staging. The finale was taken at quite a lick, though there were
a few tempo adjustments later on that did not entirely convince. For the most
part, however, this was a performance secure in direction. Again, Bachian
antecedents were to the fore: a Transylvanian Brandenburg Concerto

Of the three performances, it was that of BartÛk’s Second Violin
Concerto that slightly disappointed, mostly on account of the first movement,
in which soloist Nikolaj Znaider seemed curiously disconnected from the
orchestra. Znaider is a musician I admire greatly, but here his approach seemed
somewhat sectional, and lacked a real sense of interplay with the LSO, whose
musicians could hardly be faulted. Perhaps it was telling that it was only
really in the cadenza that Znaider’s first-movement performance ignited.
What came thereafter, including the conclusion to that movement, seemed far
more responsive, far better integrated, giving a sense of what might have been.
The slow movement continued in that vein; the violin sang soulfully, nobly, but
now sounded infinitely better ‘connected’. Its central scherzando
material was sharply etched. The finale, though it had occasional reminders of
earlier disengagement, proved highly successful in voicing the sheer range of
BartÛk’s thematic expression, in both solo and orchestral parts.
Znaider’s tone was seductive, but never for its own sake. Here was a
foretaste of the emotional commitment we should fully experience in

Mark Berry

image_description=Peter Eˆtvˆs [Photo © Jean-Francois Leclercq (]
product_title=BÈla BartÛk: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Violin Concerto
no.2 — Karol Szymanowski, Symphony no.3, ‘Song of the Night’
product_by=Nikolaj Znaider (violin), Steve Davislim (tenor), London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, PÈter Eˆtvˆs (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Tuesday 8 May 2012.
product_id=Above: Peter Eˆtvˆs [Photo © Jean-Francois Leclercq (]