RFH, SBC, London
Joseph Haydn and Bela Bartok might seem like odd musical bedfellows - the one witty, robust and urbane; the other intense, earthy and fastidious - but the Philharmonia's "Haydn/ Bartok" series under Christoph von Dohnanyi at the Royal Festival Hall has served to remind us that both composers had at least one significant quality in common: a gift for radical and often spellbinding invention.
Sunday's concert opened with Bartok's neo-Baroque Divertimento for Strings, though the tongue-in-cheek Minuet that makes a surprise entrance - just before the work's closing bars - could as well be a reference to Haydn. Dohnanyi's admirable performance was facilitated by his spatially informative orchestral layout, with violins divided left and right of the rostrum, centre-placed violas, and cellos and basses seated towards the left. Bartok's plan is to have a small group of string players goad, or respond to, the full band, and Sunday's performance had the benefit of firm contours, impressive rhythmic vitality and fine solo playing - with the concert- master Christopher Warren-Green making the most of his folky solos in the last movement. The molto adagio slow movement is rich in sinister shadow-play, something that Dohnanyi understands, though I've heard - and felt - more disturbing accounts of the glowering central climax. The finale worked best, with each distinct episode (the movement has many) vividly etched.
Next came a relentless account of the suite from Bartok's most violent stage work, The Miraculous Mandarin. And yet, with the Philharmonia Chorus on hand for a Haydn mass, why on earth settle for the suite when we could have had the whole ballet? There's barely 10 minutes' extra music involved (the chorus sings for around three of them), but Dohnanyi's forceful exegesis suggested that, for the purposes of the suite at least, he was treating the piece more as a single-movement tone-poem than as a ballet sequence. The final chase raised the roof, though it seemed senseless without the original's tragic denouement.
Still, what did follow was well worth hearing: a spirited reading of the Mass in time of peril that Haydn completed just before news broke of Lord Nelson's victory over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. Haydn responded by adding trumpet fanfares at the end of the Benedictus. Dohnanyi's soloists - soprano Susan Gritton, mezzo Ruby Philogene, tenor Toby Spence and bass Neal Davies - were all excellent, though Gritton's florid display inevitably stole the show. Davies's noble singing of the Gloria's "Qui tollis" was graced by an elegant string accompaniment, and the Sanctus's radiant opening Adagio was handled with the utmost simplicity. Dohnanyi is a supremely accomplished technician: he knows exactly what he wants and his gestures are always absolutely clear. His Haydn is impeccable, and the Philharmonia Chorus gave their all.Reuse content