Friday, 23 May 2008

Bartok in Nottingham

Loneliness drove me out and Bartok lured me. I'd been wondering about the concert all week. Bartok's second piano concerto was on the bill. I didn't know the work - my knowledge of classical music has been acquired by chance and is unsystematic - but I once spent weeks listening to recordings of the string quartets. I had a less happy experience a few years ago when, at the last minute, my son chose to accompany me to a performance of Bluebeard's Castle. I liked it but my son, who had assumed a performance about pirates was disappointed. A performance by the Hallé under Mark Elder was tempting - and I reckoned I could run to a £9 seat in the very back row. My son would be away and my daughter probably out. I could have a night out too. Still, I didn't book.

Halfway through this afternoon I rang up. Did they have any £9 tickets and could they keep me one. They wouldn't keep one for me, the lady at the box office replied, but I could just turn up and be pretty sure of getting in. I turned up.

"You could have a £6 ticket," the young man at the box office told me when I turned up. "You sit in the choir and can see the pianist's hands." This wasn't just a saving. I remembered how far away from the stage the back row was. After an enquiry about acoustics, I settled on the choir seat.

There was a free talk before the concert. It was fascinating about the history of Charles Hall
é - or Karl Halle as he was originally known. Apparently he added the accent when teaching piano in Paris, so that the French would know how to pronounce his surname. He came to London when the rich families, whose daughters learnt piano, fled from political unrest. Then he planned to move to Bath, until German industrialists who had settled in Manchester called on him to improve the city's musical life. He started running recitals and concerts. Then he assembled an orchestra for the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition on 1857, and the twice-daily free performances were so popular that Hallé was called on to run a proper town orchestra - the first town orchestra in Britain.

Mark Elder told the story well - the story of an ordinary piano teacher (and extraordinary pianist) who, without prior experience, came to lead and manage a major orchestra. But the talk was less interesting on the pieces though when Mark Elder sang or hummed the music it came alive. He assumed that everyone was there for Richard Strauss's Don Juan and Dvorak's 6th Symphony. I wanted to say that they wouldn't have got me out of the house on a rainy evening. I wasn't the only one there for the Bartok either.

The 2nd piano concerto is a strange piece, inflected by its times. It begins with a kind of mad gaiety which seems strangely incomplete, perhaps because the violins don't play. The piano is wild - almost out of control. Then, in the second movement, the violins begin with an almost intolerable depth of grief which the piano then responds to in its own way. In the final movement there's a renewal of furious jollity with the piano and orchestra speaking to - and contradicting - each other. But the rush of notes seems to be in reaction to the melancholy of the second movement - it is frenetic rather than cheerful. It wasn't surprising to find from the programme note that the piece was first performed in Germany, a week before the Nazis took power. Under the Nazis, the Bartok's work was banned.

There was a stall in the foyer selling recordings of Andras Schiff playing Bartok for less than a fiver. I bought a recording of all the piano concertos - I plan to load them onto my MP3 players so that I can listen when travelling. But I've been previewing the 3rd piano concerto on the web. This is the opening - Andras Schiff again but some years ago, when Simon Rattle was conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

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