Last night was the first concert - for me - of the new year. The programme comprised works by Béla Bartók, Dohnányi, Stravinsky and Ligeti - bar Stravinsky, a Hungarian line-up. It made for was a powerful immersion in a particular modernist idiom, one inflected by – among other things - romanticism, Magyar folk and jazz. Adrian Adlam started with Bartók’s monumental four-movement Sonata for solo violin (1943). This piece was written for Yehudi Menuhin, and tests the technical range of instrument and player to the limit. The performance was accompanied by the dazzlingly difficult score projected onto a screen. I am used to following scores at home and on YouTube, but I haven’t seen it done in this rather cinematic way in a concert hall before. It certainly worked for me: this eye-watering stew of dotted rhythms, massed accidentals and oddly shaped phrases rather magically resolved into patterns we could recognise and follow. Individual phrases sounded like the improvisation of a moment, in an unpredictable emotional journey, yet at the same time we were made aware of a rigorous architectural scheme. Throughout, the work was utterly compelling musically; the technical brilliance was always a means to an expressive and evocative end.
Peter Cornish (clarinet) followed with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (1918), inspired by Sidney Bechet. The Rhapsody in C Major for piano by Ernö Dohnányi, played by Stepehn Robbings, was much more romantic and traditionally melodic. György Ligeti’s Ballad and Dance for violin and clarinet (composed for two violins in 1950) was a short and energetic exercise in modal counterpoint and flickering dance rhythms. Finally all three performers joined for more Bartok: his Contrasts for violin, piano and clarinet was the result of an approach made to the composer by Benny Goodman. Bartók had to overcome an initial reluctance – he seemed to feel that the instruments really spoke in different languages – and then wrote a work which actually brings out these differences rather than resolves them (hence the title). Clarinetist and violinist both have to change instruments, there are bravura technical displays crackling away continuously, but what most struck me on a first listening was the sheer energy and fecundity of the composing. From the opening Czardas-like chords punched out by violin, through the shifting melodies of the slow (Pihenö) movement to the rapid yet crystalline Sebes (fast) final movement the whole work conveyed an irresistible flow of invention. Sophisticated technique – exciting to watch in itself - brought out energies which seemed to come from somewhere primal and deeply playful. Modernity as a rediscovery of the primitive, moving forward by reaching back.
Adrian Adlam has recorded Bartók's sonatas for EigenArt.