City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

DANISH chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Thomas Dausgaard invoked other senses when he introduced Sunday afternoon’s well-attended and inventive concert by saying it would offer a “glimpse” and a “taste” of the extensive folk-song collection that informed the compositions of Bela Bartok.

In what was a more comprehensive exercise than those terms suggested, what actually happened was that the petite and lovely traditional Hungarian singer Nori Kovacs entered the auditorium from the back of the hall and whispered the composer’s favourite hymn of homesickness, I started off from my beautiful country, into my right ear.

Although he did not emigrate to the USA until the start of the Second World War, it turned out that Bartok’s obsessive documentation preserved the culture of villages destroyed in the First. Those songs were played and sung here by Kovacs in the company of the three multi-instrumentalists of Parapacs in a programme that alternated the group with the orchestra performing the music Bartok made of the same melodies.

It was immediately clear that some of these Transylvanian transcriptions stick very closely indeed to their inspiration. What was also audible, even before the introduction of a bagpipe into the line-up, was the common ground the traditional music of that region shares with our own, and specifically the Gaelic singing that the same orchestra accompanied a month earlier at Celtic Connections.

Some of the informality of that festival would not have gone amiss, particularly as the project had also involved Bartok’s music being learned by young string players at three Scottish schools who played in the foyer earlier. But as the culmination of the afternoon was Bartok’s modernist classic from the 1930s, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, perhaps that was inevitable. A hugely demanding work, performed with crystalline precision here, its most overt use of the composer’s folk-song collection comes in the final movement, while the opening movement’s tone of lament was shockingly disturbing after the relative jollity of the concert’s first half.