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The first half was devoted to Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, a seminal work dating from 1937, shortly before the darkening clouds of war covered Europe, and prophetic in its contrasting moods of austerity and elemental energy. The sinewy fugal first movement unfolds a chromatic subject in thin veiled string sonorities, accumulating immense power leading to the intense central climactic outburst, reinforced by a huge cymbal clash. From there the movement unwound in retrograde, retrieving its initial austerity and solemn pathos. Daniel Barenboim's formidable command was enthralling to observe, his sweeping gestures indicating nuanced phrasing to each section of the orchestra, setting each strand in motion, creating a constantly shifting wave and web of intensities. As the music emerged from silence, it swelled and ebbed with an intimate subtlety of detail, Bartók's biting harmonic clashes heightened with emphasis.

Against this whispered overture the tumultuous second movement was vividly portrayed, its raging impetus relentlessly energized, with exciting brittle interjections of piano and other percussion. The eerie luminosity of the third movement was all the more effective, framed by the icy staccato xylophone notes. In contrast to the opening, this gesture is humanized by the sustained mellow viola. In this wonderfully atmospheric performance, every nuance seemed to emerge with significance within a sparse, minimal setting, while the finale drew the whole together with its boisterous folk syncopations, infused with a Stravinskian primal energy. With no holes barred it was a performance which revelled in an exuberant and impetuous élan.

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Copyright © 11 September 2007 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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'Elgar and Chivalry' by Robert Anderson - available now from