National Symphony performs works of Bartok, Kodaly, Liszt and Brahms

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly referred to Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” as a ballet. It is an opera. This version has been updated.

March 11, 2012

The Kennedy Center is treating March to a three-pronged festival, “The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna.” This theme has generated numerous concerts and has sprouted wings beyond the center to local embassy events and Bethesda’s Strathmore, where Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in works by Dvorak, Kodaly, Janacek and Beethoven next Saturday.

There’s good reason to link these European cities together: They form a cultural triumvirate as music capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a onetime conglomerate of countless national and ethnic regions of central and eastern Europe that was dismembered after World War I. Yet much of their musical connectedness has survived.

On Friday, National Symphony Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach conducted the orchestra in a festival program entitled “Hungarian Dances” by Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, Liszt and Brahms. But Bartok, Kodaly and Liszt were born in long-disputed territories now no longer in Hungary, and Brahms based his “Hungarian Dances” on gypsy tunes. But both Bartok and Kodaly collected and used genuine Hungarian folk music.

Unlike Thursday’s program, which focused on Bartok’s one-act psycho-opera “Bluebeard’s Castle,” the orchestra provided its enraptured Friday audience with more “accessible” fare: Bartok’s “Romanian Folk Dances,” Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta,” Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz No. 1,” and three of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances.” (The orchestra also repeated Thursday’s performance of Bartok’s lurid “The Miraculous Mandarin.”) Eschenbach drew the orchestra into a rhythmically exaggerated version of the dances, driving Bartok’s lusty set with swooping gestures and sharply delineated cues. The strings dived into their darkest colors with electrifying intensity, tempered at times by chirping piccolo and whimsical clarinet solos. Here, as in the Liszt and Brahms, the orchestra seemed pulled by a magnetic rhythmic pulse, often charging into fits of wild abandon, then applying the brakes and taking time to indulge in fanciful flights of faux-improvisation.

Friday’s “Miraculous Mandarin” was a different story. The sexual horrors of this fantasy-impelled suite are portrayed in eerie string and lower brass glissandi with promiscuously changing tempos and visceral rhythms. All in all, the NSO soloists and sections brilliantly displayed Bartok’s inventive instrumental palette.

Porter is a freelance writer.

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