Feature Review: Recent concert and opera performances in Budapest

A diary of events between 26 March and 3 April

10 April 2012

Dmitri HvorostovskyI was late for this year's Budapest Spring Festival but the amount of cultural riches on offer (evidently at all times) is staggering.

Monday, 26th March, Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, Budapest Opera House

For me there was a toss-up between the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra appearing with their Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Charles Dutoit in the Művészetek Palotája (Palace of Arts) – which is loosely speaking Budapest's equivalent of London's Barbican Centre – and an orchestral concert given by the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra (Budapesti Filharmóniai Társaság Zenekara) under Christopher Hogwood at the Budapest Opera House. I opted for the Hungarian orchestra. Although reliable friends reported that the RPO's concert was excellent, I did not regret my choice.

Established in 1853, the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra is Hungary's oldest functioning orchestra. Drawn from musicians of the Hungarian State Opera, for many years it was Hungary's only professional orchestra. They worked with such distinguished composer-conductors as Erkel, Dohnányi, Brahms, Dvořák, Mahler, Mascagni, Prokofiev, Ravel, Respighi, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. Other conductors included Eugen d'Albert, Arthur Nikisch, Felix Weingartner, Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber and Otto Klemperer.

Christopher Hogwood's name is usually linked to historical performances of early music. However, his repertoire also includes 19th and 20th century composers in his double roles as scholar and conductor. Currently Hogwood is working on a new edition of Mendelssohn's complete orchestral works for Bärenreiter, so his programme of all Mendelssohn pieces with the Budapest orchestra was appropriate.    

I am not sure if it was the conductor, the orchestra or, indeed, myself who needed to settle in but I found the Ruy Blas overture unconvincing in terms of tight ensemble and tonal power. Nevertheless, the orchestral seating of 1st violins and violas on the left with the cellos and 2nd violins on the right produced a well balanced tonal mix.

BPOThe G minor piano concerto brought a different dimension, not least because of János Palojtay, the very musical solo pianist. Still in his early twenties, Palojtay brings dream like poetry and utmost dedication to the concerto. He looks at the whole, not only at the part(s). Palojtay plays with the orchestra during the orchestral tutti sections, thus he constantly remains an integral part rather than just a soloist who is alternating with (and is accompanied by) the orchestra. He even looks fully integrated, blending into the black piano with his modest black attire. The dialogue between the solo piano and viola section in the second movement was chamber music at its best– credit is also due to principal viola Péter Lukács – while the third movement was light, charming and virtuoso as surely Mendelssohn wished.

The orchestra covered itself in glory during Mendelssohn's fourth (‘Italian') symphony. Although orchestral entries and ensemble were at times slightly untidy owing to what looked like a lack of solid beats from the conductor, Hogwood's musical direction produced a tasteful and highly enjoyable performance. The dialogue between the 1st and 2nd violins in the last movement was particularly poignant. The string players in the orchestra are excellent and this should be no surprise in Hungary with its rich string traditions. But the oboe and horn section solos were also of top standard as were all other sections. This was a delightful concert.

Tuesday, 27th March, Kodály Choir of Fukusima, Béla Bartók Memorial House

The Japanese Kodály Choir of Fukusima gave extraordinary performances of works by Bartók, Kodály and Kurtág in the house where Bartók spent his last years in Hungary. They also presented Japanese traditional songs and dances.

Conductor Dr Furija Mijako is a graduate of the Tokyo Muszasino Music Academy but in 1987 she studied at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest. On returning to Japan she founded the Kodály Choir of Fukusima, which is still going strong. The choir consists mostly of teachers from the Fukusima and Tohoku areas.
Bartók's 27 choruses for children and women voices are based on Hungarian folk poems. The Fukusima group did not only sing the pieces in Hungarian but mostly from memory and with perfect diction. This meant a full hour singing (and standing) without any rest for voice, legs and memory. Yet musicality was dominating throughout. I could not help wondering: how many European choirs would master Japanese songs of such length with such dedication?

Kurtág's What is the word was composed for voice and piano. The piece was inspired by Samuel Beckett's poem, which Kurtág read in Hungarian translation by István Siklós in 1989 that is at the time of Beckett's death. Another inspiration was the actress Ildikó Monyók who, as a result of a car accident, lost her ability to speak but after seven years of hard work managed to express herself with a few words. Kurtág composed What is the word for Monyók who then went on performing it on stage for a few years while she was able to do so. The singer speaks, stutters and screams the words while the pianist plays with one finger to provide supporting sounds.

In Kurtág's version for chamber ensemble, the piece is concluded by a solo violin which is meant to illustrate the stuttering words with sounds of crying and wimping.

The version for chorus, performed for the first time at this concert, was initiated by Furija Mijako. She and her choir are based in Fukusima where the nuclear disaster a year ago caused many to struggle for words. In this version the final violin solo is replaced by a piano piece which Kurtág composed for Mijako. Perhaps appropriately, words fail me to describe the performance of the ten ladies who recited Beckett' words (in Hungarian, from memory) with the most moving performance. One could not help thinking (and observing) that their experience of the nuclear disaster made them specifically qualified for this piece.

The three hours long concert included several Japanese songs and dances, the Hungarian National Anthem as well as the Evening Song by Kodály (the latter two items again in perfect Hungarian from memory). Karibosikiri uta, an ancient Japanese song in a transcription for mixed choir was performed by the 25 chorus members without a conductor. Notwithstanding the intricate polyphony, the ensemble was rock solid while the collective expression was deeply moving. Where do these Japanese teachers get their energies from? Inspiration clearly comes from the remarkable Mijako but their strength and discipline seem almost a miracle (rather than Japanese tradition).

Wednesday, 28th March, Vác Spring Festival: Schubert Winterreise, Szilvester Ókovács baritone, Ildikó Cs. Nagy piano 

Ókovács is the latest managing director of the Hungarian State Opera, which currently seems to be having particularly troubled times. Hats off, therefore, to Ókovács for persisting with music making even in times of administrative difficulties. If only all artist managers, art directors and the like experienced first hand what they are managing!

The small concert hall of the local music school (in Vác), named after Béla Bartók, was an ideal setting for Schubert's song cycle. Most of the audience seemed to be locals who knew the singer or the pianist or knew someone who knew them. Nevertheless, informality was not on the agenda. Indeed, arguably the setting increased the distance between the audience and the performers: lights were switched off and the hall was lit by candles.  On the other hand, we were able to read the full text (in poetic Hungarian translation by Ókovács) projected to a large screen behind the performers.

Dmitri HvorostovskyÓkovács's voice production took some getting used to – or perhaps he needed warming up – but his diction of the German text (sung by memory) was crystal clear and often highly expressive. For instance, his delivery of the lines ‘und sein kleiner Teller bleibt ihm immer leer' [and his small plate remains always empty] in the final song was spine chilling.

Ildikó Cs. Nagy was strong support at the piano, setting the mood for each song admirably.

Thursday afternoon, 29th March, teacher training, Kodály Museum

As an observer, I attended a training session for music teachers from outside Hungary. The session took place within a one-year long full time course facilitated by the Kodály Institute of Kecskemét. This afternoon it was brought home to me (again) that the interpretation of Kodály's philosophy of teaching is as varied as the interpretation of any musical masterpiece. While I continue to adhere to my version, I am delighted that the group whose session I attended – that is about 15 or so motivated music teachers from all over the world – may keep Kodály's spirit alive.  

Thursday evening, 29th March, Arabella, Hungarian State Opera

Considering the current difficulties (including unpopular changes in working conditions) at the Hungarian State Opera, it is gratifying to see good performances on stage. Their new production of Arabella (premiered twelve days earlier on 17th March), provides a very pleasant, entertaining evening with elegant sets (Attila Csikós) and beautiful costumes (Rita Velich) of the period and with some excellent singing.

Zita Váradi (Zdenka) is outstanding by any standard and Thomas Johannes Mayer (Mandryka) is totally convincing vocally, dramatically and with his crystal clear German diction. Mayer is the only non-Hungarian singer in the cast, which (possibly unintentionally) makes his outsider status in Hofmannsthal's libretto authentic. Mandryka's relatively late arrival in the story is also mirrored by Mayer stepping in only for this particular performance. Eszter Sümegi (Arabella) is an excellent singer but, to me, she is more the dignified Marshallin (Der Rosenkavalier) than the flirtatious Arabella. On the other hand, Erika Miklósa (Fiakermili) could be a fully credible Arabella (while, at this performance, the role of Fiakermili seemed just a touch over her range). 

Stage director Géza Bereményi indicates the large canvas but occasionally ignores individual relationships. In Act Two, Arabella and Mandryka sing their love duet (Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein) standing at the front of stage and looking at the audience (although they do kiss on conclusion of their duet). Arabella's aria (Über seine Felder) in Act Three is delivered in the same fashion. At times Bereményi ignores the crowd too: during the Act Three reconciliation of Arabella and Mandryka the hotel guests just stand and stare.

The orchestra (under Balázs Kocsár) gave a fully transparent account of the score. Those in the audience familiar with Hofmannsthal's libretto or with knowledge of German or Hungarian are likely to have had a good time. But I wonder what the many English speaking visitors made of the German performance with Hungarian surtitles. 

Saturday afternoon, 31st March, The Magic Flute for children

Valéria Csányi, a conductor at the Hungarian State Opera and founder-director of the Buda House for Arts (Budai Művészház) presented a compact version of Mozart's Magic Flute for children. The reduction to one hour length (with piano instead of orchestra) keeps the main story line and treats the integrity of the music with respect. The cast were principal singers of the Hungarian State Opera but they were astonishingly good at communicating with the audience consisting of two hundred children. The venue – the sport hall of a primary school – could have been a hindrance but the singers made the most of it and turned the limitations to their advantage. They delivered many of their spoken lines (and even some of their arias) while walking in the midst of children whom they drew into the story line. For example, Papageno picked up an attentive little girl, got her stand on a chair and discussed his need for a friend. The little girl responded to Papageno's plight and placed a kiss on his cheek. I hasten to add that this was not a pre-arranged set scene but grew integrally from the artistic approach to the performance. Considering the venue and its audience, the standard of the cast was mind blowing. And no, these principal singers and their conductor did not perform for vast amount of moneys – far from it – or for career moves. These performers are artists who love their art and care for the audience of the future: Ferenc Valter (Sarastro), Tamás Daróczi (Tamino), Anna Pánti (Queen of Night and Papagena), Zsuzsanna Bazsinka (Pamina), Kázmér Sárkány (Papageno), Zsolt Derecskei (Monostatos) Ira Nagy (flute) and Valéria Csányi (piano).

Saturday evening, 31st March, concluding concert of the Liszt year celebrations

This was the farewell event to the more than 200 concerts organised by Hungarofest, and performed by about 5000 musicians in some 20 countries to celebrate Franz Liszt's two hundredth birthday in 2011. The celebrations started with a concert given by the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra of Budapest in Madrid and have now concluded with a concert given by the same orchestra in the Budapest Opera House.
Péter Wolf's arrangement of Liszt's second Hungarian Rhapsody could have sounded over the top in less competent hands but under the direction of their eminent artistic director and lead violinist János Rolla, the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra gave a disciplined yet authentic account of the piece inspired by traditional and gypsy melodies. This orchestra's sound, regardless what they perform, is always unified as the players evidently even breathe together.     

The third volume of Liszt's Years of Pilgrimage consists of pieces inspired by religious themes. ‘Angelus', the opening piece, is a prayer to the guardian angels and was composed for piano or harmonium or organ in 1877. However, later Liszt made a version also for strings. After the performance of ‘Angelus' by the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra, my companion for the concert – István Kassai, a distinguished pianist – said: ‘this was the first time that I understood the piece'. One could not give higher praise to a performance.
Composed in 1833 but discovered only after Liszt's death, the ‘Malédiction' [curse] for piano and string orchestra places great demands on the pianist. The chamber music aspect is highly important in spite of the very difficult piano part. Pianist Dezső Ránki was clearly looking for the musical content even in the most demanding virtuoso passages. The ensemble between Ránki and orchestra was seamless, partly because Ránki gave musical directions throughout.

With the grand B Minor Sonata for Piano, Ránki's masterly transitions between various virtuoso and expressive sections, his transparent voice leading and his disciplined but emotionally charged rendering has brought the Liszt celebrations to a dignified and memorable conclusion.

Sunday, 1st April (Palm Sunday), Bach: St John Passion

BudapestPerformed in the Deák Square Lutheran church by the Lutheran Choir (Lutheránia Énekkar) under their distinguished conductor Salamon Kamp, Bach's great work could have not found a more appropriate setting. The performance served as an integral part of the Palm Sunday church service. A sermon was delivered between Chorals Nos. 20 (Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück) and 21(Christus, der uns selig macht). After the Evangelist announced Christ's death (No. 59: Und neiget das Haupt), the priest and the audience (that is the congregation) prayed to ‘Our Father in Heaven' (that is to ‘Miatyánk a mennyekben' in Hungarian). And to conclude after the last choral (No. 68: Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein), the priest addressed the congregation, although only briefly. During his sermon the priest emphasized that Bach's intention with his St John Passion was to serve (presumably God). Indeed, this powerful and deeply moving performance by Kamp and his team indicated and inspired servitude.

Kamp clearly respects the composer (thus baroque performing practice) as well as the venue. For instance, in the opening chorus (Herr, unser Herrscher) the rests between the repeated words Herr served to cushion any possible echo in the church while the length of the sung notes were carefully measured to avoid unwelcome echoes. Kamp's spirited rendering of the movement made the four-part texture sound majestic; his changing dynamic levels, too, kept the music moving forward.  Kamp applied a similar approach to many of the chorals: forward direction and a variety of dynamics provided clarity for the biblical text. However, choral No. 52 (In meines Herzens Grunde) was presented with seamless legato and magical pianissimo on its conclusion. In several of the chorus numbers such as Nos. 23 (Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter) , 25 (Wir dürfen niemand töten) and 36 (Kreuzige,kreuzige) tightly controlled rhythm and transparent polyphony increased the drama of the biblical story. Kamp's use of sharp staccato vocal sounds in chorus movements such as Nos. 34 (Sei gegrüsset, lieber Jüdenkönig), 38 (Wir haben ein Gesetz), 42 (Lässest du diesen los), 48 (Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen), 50 (Schreibe nicht: der Jüden König) and 54 (Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen ) provided dramatic contrasts to the narration of the Evangelist and the solo arias.

Tenor Zoltán Megyesi is a very experienced Evangelist with a strong lung and impressive stamina. He delivered the narration with sensitivity to each word, a wide range of dynamic levels and even virtuosity (as in No. 30: Barrabas aber war ein Mörder). He also sang all three tenor arias with consummate skills. To these pair of ears the soprano soloist at times struggled with intonation but alto Atala Schök was rock solid with a velvety sound. Veteran bass-baritone István Berczelly has been singing the part of Jesus at these Deák Square Lutheran concerts since 1963. Although the voice may be slightly worn on the top, he lives (rather than just sings) the part in his moving delivery. Bass László Jekl invested his solos with musicality, drama and crystal clear vocal delivery. For me one of the highlights of this high standard event was the No. 60 bass aria and choral (Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen): Jekl's dramatic bass, the staccato solo cello and the beautiful legato chorus lines created what I would call a musical holy trinity.

Although Megyesi, Schök, Berczelly and Jekl are principal singers with wide ranging roles at the Hungarian State Opera, their skills in the baroque style (probably due to conductor Kamp's direction) were gratifying.
Full praise is also due to Juniki Spartakus, the attentive leader of the participating Budapest Chamber Orchestra and to harpsichord player Borbála Dobozy whose melodic keyboard playing was admirable.
This was the most uplifting performance of the St John Passion which I have ever attended. I will treasure the memory.

Monday morning, 2nd April, Franz Liszt University and Music Academy

Professor Malcolm Bilson is in residence at the university for a week, giving lectures and coaching performers on the fortepiano. This morning he spoke on Schubert's unfinished piano sonatas and he coached Mozart's piano concerto K 488. The Schubert paper consisted of recorded sound (accompanied by screening of the scores) although mostly focusing on how Bilson finished some of Schubert's unfinished sonatas by using other unfinished Schubert material. The process is fascinating although the jury is still out whether Bilson or other editors' compilations will win the day.

It is a privilege to observe artists of Bilson's calibre to coach but I cannot help wondering whether master classes on the whole assist participating students or the masters. Either way, Éva Cecilia Nagy has gained my admiration. A fourth year pianist at the Academy, she has never played a fortepiano until yesterday. Nevertheless, this morning she played the Mozart concerto on the instrument and coped with advice as well as criticism in public with focus, courage and evident integrity during her one and half hour slot.

Tuesday, 3rd April, Traviata, Hungarian State Opera

Owing to an administrative error (by someone at the Budapest Opera House), sadly I missed the first act. However, it was still clear from the rest of the opera that the sets (Miklós Fehér) and costumes (Judit Schäffer) were sumptous while the choreography in the second act (by Jenő Lőcsei) was generous in space as well as with the number of dancers. (In Covent Garden's current production the dancers are more restricted).
The standard of singing compared well with any opera house anywhere in the world but there were some untidy moments in ensemble (which could also happen in any opera house). Klára Kolonits (Violetta) is an accomplished singer but she neither looks nor sounds like someone suffering from tuberculosis. I expect she might be a great Tosca but as Violetta she is not entirely credible. On the other hand, to these pair of ears, the voice of Katalin Gémes (Flora) sounded as ideal for Violetta.  Péter Balczó (Alfredo) looked, acted and sounded as the passionate and somewhat naive young lover. Anatoly Fokanov, a Russian singer with the Hungarian State Opera for the past twenty years, sang the role of Germont with authority and vocal strength but his dramatic portrayal of Germont lacked details which could make this slightly problematic character more credible.

As indicated above, during this evening I heard more untidy ensemble errors than what I would have liked to witness even during a live performance. However, as conductor Balázs Kocsár secured a tight ensemble during Arabella the previous week, I feel tempted to regard the blemishes as 'one-off'.

The global financial crisis might have hit Hungary harder than some bigger and richer countries. But the cultural riches are still there. Visit and enjoy!

By Agnes Kory