There’s a sepia photo of Bartók out collecting folksongs in what is now the Czech Republic in 1907, phonograph at the ready. The music he recorded didn’t just preserve a vanishing way of life, it also resonated for decades through his compositions.
In the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s final prom this season, conducted by Ilan Volkov, the folk tunes didn’t so much resonate as bite back – as if someone had dropped the needle on to Bartók’s field recordings midway through one of his own works. The British-Hungarian Folktone band opened the concert with ornate melodies and toe-tapping syncopation. When the band’s violinist “passed” his note to soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who launched into some blustering passagework from Bartók’s Violin Concerto No 2, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that was it. But moments later, Folktone was back, morphing Bartók’s concerto back into the musical language that had inspired it.
The interruptions were clever (and there were more before the concerto proper began). Folktone’s colourful grittiness made new sense of Kopatchinskaja’s virtuosically managed palette of sounds – from the exuberant catch of bow on string to barely there legato, curling like smoke out of the orchestral fabric. Above all, though, it was Kopatchinskaja’s own characterisation of every note that made the performance so compelling. She danced and grinned through an encore (Ligeti’s Hungarian folk-inspired Balada si Joc), in which she ricocheted tunes backwards and forwards to the orchestra’s leader before briefly sweeping the orchestra itself into the joyous musical whirlwind.
Alone on stage for Bartók’s Suite No 2 – a piece with looser connections to the Hungarian folk music that preceded it after the interval – the BBCSSO gave a committed but less vivid performance. Despite flashes of late-Romantic ardour and full-throated woodwind solos, a bolder approach was needed to match the vibrant musical personality of the first half.
All Proms are available on BBC Sounds until 10 October.