Arts: Classical: It started with a sneeze

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The Independent Culture
THROUGH THICK and thin, BBC Radio 3 continues Sounding the Century. Not that its critics would care to notice. It's October, so it must be Hungary. Hungarian Focus promises "Bartok and Beyond" in just two evenings. Now that's what I call focus. No matter, it's not to be sneezed at. Unless, of course, you are Hungarian, in which case it's an excellent omen.

Kodaly's play-with-music, Hary Janos, begins with a sneeze, a big wet orchestral sneeze. Pinchas Steinberg (stepping in for the indisposed Jiri Belohlavek) launched Friday's BBC Symphony's concert thus. Kodaly's concert suite from Hary Janos virtually plays itself. Its set pieces, from the "Viennese Musical Clock" - all chiming percussion and dandified military march - to the catchy, applause-seeking "Intermezzo" - a roistering folk tune liberally spiced with the distinctive clatter and twang (like a jaundiced balalaika) of the cimbalom - are so vividly scored as to require little or no encouragement to shine. But then again, there is "The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon", a brilliant and audacious exercise in parody, which Steinberg took rather too much at face value (like his anonymous reading of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra later in the evening).

Janos's tall story demands even taller characterisation. Still, the BBC Symphony's five trumpets made a jolly racket of his victory parade, and a husky-voiced viola neatly pointed the way to some unfinished business of Bela Bartok.

Tibor Serly worked wonders with the sketches Bartk left of his projected Viola Concerto for William Primrose. But they were sketches - patches, songs, and snatches, if you like - from a life that was fast ebbing away and the greater part of Serly's achievement in organising Bartok's rough (very rough) draft of the concerto after his death has to do with his appreciation of its unvarnished, rhapsodic nature.

The natural earth-tones of the viola, barely supported, often unaccompanied, suggest the singers and songs of the Hungarian heartlands, every coarseness and catch of those voices finding its way on to Bartok's sketch-pad. And beyond. Nobuko Imai found her way through virtuosity and honesty, somehow achieving "completion" where even Serly could not.

The truth of it was often disarming: a lowly bassoon providing the inspiration for the soloist's heart-breaking lament in the slow movement. Suddenly this never-to-be-completed piece was in every sense whole again.

Gyorgy Ligeti, on the other hand, has always been rather good at taking apart that which was once whole. His Etudes for piano were conceived along traditional lines - virtuosic epigrams - but somewhere along the way slipped and fell into dizzying anarchy. Pierre-Laurent Aimard is in the business of clinging to the method in the madness, and he does so in a way you wouldn't believe.

He looks and plays like an invention of Ligeti's eccentric imagination - a scatty, bespectacled figure wildly pursuing the incensed toccatas and moto perpetuos right off the edge of the keyboard. Etude No 17, "A Bout de Souffle" - the world premiere of a BBC commission - was as good as its word: a blast of air, hot air, that seemed to carry off a lyric remnant of Ligeti's native Hungary.

Such remnants were to be found in the simple but slightly-out-of-phase voicings of Etudes Nos 15, "White on White", and 16, "Pour Irina". Hungary touchingly remembered, but long since out of focus.