Majesty; clear, deep crimson, the aroma of cloves. Masculine energy. Obscurity. Happy love, pure conscience, hope. Affability and tenderness. The dignity of superiors. Soft, sweet, feminine. Glory. Peace. – These terms are just some of the descriptions used by musical theoreticians between 1770 and1815 to describe the tonality of B flat major. E. T. A Hoffmann associated it with flutes of spring forest and pan pipes. According to William Gardiner, B flat major “is the most uninteresting of all tonalities. It does not have sufficient fire to be glorious or majestic, and is far too boring for songs.”
Luckily, this latter critique proved entirely unfounded for the National Philharmonic Orchestra's December 23rd concert, for which Zoltán Kocsis selected purely excellent works cast in B flat major. The diverse faces of this tonality were splendidly apparent, suggesting other characteristics. Of course, the majority of the audience probably did not go to the Music Academy of a December evening to examine the nature of B flat – rather, they wished to hear a good concert.
The soloist for the evening was Barnabás Kelemen, who in the first half played Mozart's violin concerto in B flat major (K 207) and Schubert's B flat major polonaise after the interval. I was truly looking forward to hearing this superb young violinist but I must confess that his playing left me with ambivalent feelings. Primarily not because of the mistake he made in the opening movement of the concerto and not even because of his occasionally imprecise intonation – after all, everyone can have an off day. Rather, it was Kelemen's attitude as a performer that made me wonder.
They say there are two kinds of actor: one who lives in his roles, the other who permeates all his roles with his own personality and mannerisms. If we can use this dichotomy for musicians, then Barnabás Kelemen unmistakably belongs to the second category. His playing is always very intense, personal and fascinating. But does Mozart's music actually succeed best in such a performance? Well, I have to say I have my doubts. Probably this is why I most enjoyed his own free form cadenzas as well as the two B flat major encores (!), the Paganini Devil's Cackle caprce and the Siciliano from Bach's G minor solo sonata. Kelemen's daring “in your face” playing style perhaps suited Schubert's polonaise better, although I felt in the Mozart violin concerto it was rather exaggerated.
The concert was framed by Haydn's symphony no. 102, composed in 1794, and Schubert's 2nd symphony from two decades later. The audience could enjoy these two works in truly world class performances, in which every detail was worked out and yet was unified. Every section of the orchestra was in superb form, the woodwind was precise and the lower strings did not encumber the sonority. Zoltán Kocsis conducted with economical motions but he always indicated the essential points and accents. I should give special mention to the extremely fast tempos.
Perhaps in the first and third movements of the Schubert symphony, I felt the tempo was too hurried – not that the orchestra could not cope with having to go like the wind, rather the music itself became slightly weightless in all the rush. But that does not in the least make us forget how Kocsis superbly exploited the concealed rhetorical possibilities in the Haydn symphony, how beautifully the slow movement with its solo cello was or how both finales simply sparkled. The orchestra wishes us all a happy Christmas with another B flat major work, Dvorák's 14th Slavic Dance, which amalgamates elements of minuet and polonaise in unique fashion.
(December 23, 2004. 19:30 – Concert by the National Philharmonic Orchestra; Haydn: Symphony in B flat major, Hob. I:102; Mozart: Violin Concerto in B flat major, K 207; Schubert: Polonaise in B flat major, D 580; Symphony no. 2 in B flat major, D 125; featuring.: Barnabás Kelemen (violin); conductor: Zoltán Kocsis)
(Fidelio, December 26, 2004)