Peter Eotvos and the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (conductor), Iveta Apkalna (organ), László Fassang (Hammond organ)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2019

  • Arnold Schoenberg – Accompaniment to an Imaginary Film Scene, Op. 34
  • Bela Bartok – Dance Suite
  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
  • Peter Eotvos – Multiversum

A sort of panic purchase this. It is a bit of a faff to use credit for returned tickets at the South Bank. Forgot that a chunk of said credit was about to expire and had already booked most of the concerts I was keen to see. So a bit of fat finger fact finding on the phone ahead of a booked concert and this was the result. Which I promptly forgot about until it popped up in the diary. Still you can’t go wrong with a bit of Bartok and Stravinsky right, and the Eotvos piece (a UK premiere) look like a lark.

Well up to a point. As it turns out Multiversum was a thing to behold but the rest of the programme was less convincing.

What with his Blue Reiter and Expressionist mates, his own daubing and his atmospheric, serialist diddling, Schoenberg was a shoe-in for a film score commission but when it came in 1929, purist that he was, he turned it down and itself wrote this, for an “imaginary” film. It is made up of three moods, Threatening Danger, Fear and Catastrophe and is as dull as everything else I have heard by Schoenberg, whether it be late Romantic gushing, atonal, tonal, or twelve tone. Maybe one day I’ll get it but not so far.

I’ve said before that Bartok’s music is equally fascinating and baffling for me. The Dance Suite manages to be both at the same time. He was commissioned by the Budapest municipality to come up with something which could restore some pride in a Hungary battered by the WWI peace settlement. It’s six movements work as a kind of musical memento mori for the Hungary of history with folk dance music with distinct Hungarian, Romanian and Arabic characters. Like all of Bartok he doesn’t hang around ideas wise so just when you have got your head around one melody he is on to the next one. There are some punchy passages notably in the second Allegro molto (which seems to end with “The Hills Are Alive” !!), the proceeding Allegro vivace and the short, spooky Comodo. The Finale is a suite all by itself. Played the right way, as in the recording I have by the Chicago SO under Solti it is up there with the best of the Stravinsky ballets and Ravel’s most atmospheric works. Here it felt a bit underwhelming.

Things perked up with the Stravinsky, which I have always felt has an air of Shostakovich about it, despite the fact that IS thought DSCH was an appalling hack. The Symphony in Three Movements is really just three, admittedly brilliant and imaginative, movements, written at different times, which IS cobbled together. The Overture: Allegro is as exciting as anything he ever wrote with its motoric string march proceeded by a woodwind and piano scamper. IS was at the height of his fame in New York at the end of WWII and his ballet music was even sampled by Disney. This movement could have fallen straight out of The Rite of Spring albeit with a neo-classical lilt. The Andante: Interlude, L’istesso tempo is led by the harp and was originally intended for a film, The Song of Bernadette. It too has a balletic feel. The finale, Con Moto, was tacked on ahead of the 1945 premiere and comprises a lolloping march, woodwind burble and more keyboard accompaniment. I have heard more urgent and involving performances but Mr Eotvos drove the Philharmonia a little harder than in the prior two pieces to good effect.

Now the composer says the Multiversum was written to channel his interest in “string theory, gravitational waves and the relationships between multiple universes”. Uh oh. I have nothing about contemporary composers describing what prompted and inspired them, and programmatic music has a long history, but sometimes …….. Anyway there are certainly passages in Multiversum where Mr Eotvos goes a little bit B movie, sci-fi on our collective arses, (though thankfully no ondes martenot or electronica), but, cumulatively, across its 35 minutes it does leave a monumental impression. This is largely down to the innovative combination of pipe organ and Hammond organ and the way the orchestra, which is not vast, is placed and combined.

The 20 strong string section was positioned to the audience left, woodwinds to the right, with brass and percussion scattered through the back of the stage. The Hammond organ allows for various pulse-y, lengthened effects, while the main pipe organ, in step-wise motion, generates the throb that sits behind the soundscapes. Together they do say “cosmos” even if at times it was more film score than the mind being stuff of, say, Ligeti or Xenakis.

There are three movements, Expansion, Multiversum and Time and Space, with a kind of Bach-ian construction – Prelude, Toccata, Chorale- though I couldn’t work out much in the way of themes or ideas. There were though some undeniably impressive passages, with inventive harmonies and waves of repetition, and I would happily listen to the piece again, but the influences of Mr Eotvos’s Hungarian heritage, and years spent with Stockhausen and Boulez, were not immediately apparent. He seemed to be having a lot of fun though as did the two soloists and the PO. Iveta Apkalna, dressed in a long, Gothic frock coat, certainly added drama on the RFH’s mighty organ, (her own baby is the brand spanking new Klais organ in the Elbphilharmonie), and Laszlo Fassang showed why he has the market in “classical” Hammond organ sewn up.


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