Feature Review: Recent concert and opera performances in Budapest

A diary of events between 23 and 30 August

6 September 2012

Dmitri Hvorostovsky
During this late part of the summer, musical events in Hungary were thinner on the ground than at any other time during the year. Nevertheless, there was still enough to choose from. Apart from the first event, all concerts in this report were presented in Budapest.

Thursday, 23rd August, Choir of the National Széchényi Library, Liszt Week, Esztergom

This concert formed part of a week of celebrations of Liszt in the Esztergom 'Vatican' – that is in the seat of the Archbishop of Esztergom – and it was organised for the fifth year by the Liszt Society. Liszt is mainly known by music lovers for his piano pieces and by few of his orchestral compositions. Yet his choral works, songs and liturgical compositions form an integral part of Liszt's compositional output. The Liszt Society strives to address this imbalance in appreciation for Liszt and promotes lesser known Liszt compositions.

This particular concert focused on religious works, presented with loving care and innate musicality by the Choir of the National Széchényi Library and their excellent conductor Mária Eckhardt (and by their skilled second conductor Ágnes Gupcsó). In their opening In domum Domini ibimus they were very gentle, almost slightly underpowered but in Der Kirchensegen they seemed to have gained confidence and projection: their presentation was disciplined as well as radiant. The men of the choir, all twelve of them without the female section of the choir, sang Pax vobiscum with clarity and respect while the twenty-six ladies of the choir sounded angelic in Tantum ergo. They kept their pitch admirably in spite of singing a capella, yet this would be no mean feat even by professionals, let alone by an amateur choir. In the full choral works (for mixed voices) of Ave verum corpus and Salve Regina Eckhardt gave the starting pitches vocally to all sections: no tuning folk or the like was needed, Eckhardt was rock solid in pitching as well as in coaxing intelligent and musical performances from her choir (founded by herself some forty years ago). Polyphony was transparent and the phrases had lovely shapes. The Pater noster from the oratorio Christ produced huge sounds from the chorus, and Stabat Mater speciosa was telling a story with appropriate dramatic outbursts. The twelve men of the choir impressed with their confident and powerful introduction to Tu es Petrus. In between the choral numbers organist Péter Sirák played organ transcriptions of various Liszt compositions. Sirák performed with virtuosity yet with humility. However, I would have preferred to hear Liszt (rather than transcriptions of Liszt by István Koloss and Bernhard Sulze respectively). But the virtuoso organ introduction in Liszt's grand choral treatment of Nun danket alle Gott gave us some insight into Liszt's own writing for the organ and it showed Sirák's considerable skills. This concert must be regarded as a triumph for all participants. Indeed, Eckhardt should be a role model for musicologists: at an age when most people would take it easy, she continues with her distinguished scholarly work as well as with her beloved choir. There is clearly no division between musician and musicologist in Eckhardt: she is the embodiment of the whole. 

Saturday, 25th August, István Király (King Stephen), five-act opera by Ferenc Erkel; Szent Angyalok Temploma (Church of the Holy Angels), Gazdagrét, Budapest

Sadly, Erkel's name and his music is not as familiar outside Hungary as it should be (although his  Hungarian National Anthem, composed in 1844, was played eight times during the 2012 Olympics). As composer, conductor and pianist as well as an important teacher, Erkel was a significant figure in Hungary's music life in the 19th century. Regarded by many as the father of the Hungarian grand opera, Erkel completed  his last opera  – István Király (King Stephen) – in 1882 but the score's instrumentation has not been completed by Erkel: it was arranged by Erkel's composer sons (Gyula and Sándor) under his guidance. Arguably this opera may be regarded as one of Erkel's most mature compositions. Its premier in 1885 was hugely successful but since then it had a checkered history. In 1896 Erkel's sons added extra numbers, then reduced the numbers; later there seemed to be an open season for all to chop and change or to reduce. Apart from pre-1896 performances, the original form has not been performed until 2010 when conductor Valéria Csányi conducted a single performance in Komárom, Hungary.

Partially the same cast and choral/orchestral forces were assembled again for the 25th August 2012 concert performance. Inevitably a concert performance of a grand opera has its drawbacks. For instance, at one point in this opera, the character Sebős is supposed to be dragged away by guards but, instead, he politely walked off stage (that is off his space, squashed between chorus and orchestra) making sure he did not bump into any of his colleagues. Nevertheless, Valéria Csányi coaxed an exciting and deeply moving performance from his soloists and chorus alike – her excellent chorus was specially formed and trained for this occasion by Ákos Somogyváry, a direct descendant of Erkel – and the orchestra, drawn largely from members of the MÁV Symphony Orchestra, gave full support. Most of the principal singers managed to 'stage' the drama in spite of the lack of stage (as well as of space) and in spite of singing from music. Acting honours must go to tenor Zoltán Nyári (Imre), mezzo soprano Jolán Sánta (Jóva) and baritone Ákos Ambrus (a particularly menacing Péter) but all three were excellent vocally and musically too. Soprano  Zsuzsanna Bazsinka (Crescimira) excelled in her duet with Ákos Ambrus (Peter) in the second act and presented her final mad aria in the fifth act with breath-taking virtuosity and consummate dramatic skills. Soprano Ildikó Szakács (Zolna) managed her difficult top notes (and, I hasten to add, all her other material) effortlessly in her bird aria while her interchange with the ladies of the choir representing her echo (in the fourth act) was magical. Baritone János Gurbán (István) was a replacement for the title role which he had to learn within a few days. At times his head was deeply in the music but he sang with dignity and innate musicality. Smaller parts too were presented well: bass Dömötö Pintér particularly impressed with his strong projection.

Erkel's music is lyrical as well as passionate and it is full of lovely melodies. After this performance, Csányi and her team recorded the piece for Hungaroton. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 26th August, Ferenc Liszt Chamber orchestra, Yoav Levanon piano, Ágnes and Júlia Pusker violins, Jewish Summer Festival, Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest

Many of the audience attended to hear – or, in most cases, just to see – the eight-year old child prodigy Yoav Levanon who has been giving public concerts for the past two or three years. However, those who came to hear quality music (quaranteed by the participation of the Ferenc Liszt Chamber Orchestra) were not disappointed.

Goldmark's quartet Op.8 (B flat) in the orchestral version set the tone with the extraordinary ability of the Ferenc Liszt Chamber Orchestra to breathe together as one. They do so under their remarkable leader János Rolla who has been at the helm for some fifty years. Unlike most orchestra leaders, Rolla foregoes any theatrical display of leadership. Though musically in charge, he is an integral part of the whole which is fully united. They opened the Goldmark with a lush warm sound which immediately engaged the audience. They were gracious as well as witty in the charming pizzicato ending of the third movement. The theme of the fourth movement was defined by the violas with utmost clarity; the whole performance was romantic without turning sentimental. The second half of the concert also opened with an orchestral version of a string quartet, this time of Mendelsohn's Quartet in A minor. The song-like theme in the middle movement was magical while its fast section displayed virtuoso yet crystal clear playing. 

Yoav Levanon is not a child prodigy. He is an eight-year old artist of high calibre. Calm (thus making sure that his piano stool is the right height) and thoughtful, he engages with the music in his mind before he actually starts playing. Levanon played Haydn's piano concerto in D (XVIII:11) from memory. His playing is disciplined yet varied: he shapes themes in major and minor differently. The cadenza in the first movement started with loving care and turned into a virtuoso display (as cadenzas should do). The dialogue between solo piano and orchestra in the second movement was deeply moving although here it was impossible not be moved by the rapport between the child and the orchestra led by Rolla who is some sixty years older than Levanon. The start of the third movement was signalled by Levanon and implemented seamlessly by the orchestra. Ensemble playing was immaculate throughout. As an encore, Levanon played a Chopin Nocturne with musicality, discipline and virtuosity. Before the concert, Levanon was marketed as a 21st-century Mozart or a second Barenboim. He is neither: he is Levanon (with more of Radu Lupu's or András Schiff's keyboard touch than that of Barenboim's). Long may he continue.

The Pusker sisters, Ágnes and Júlia, each played a piece for solo violin with orchestra and concluded their performance (and the whole concert) with a double violin piece with orchestra.

Júlia Pusker played Bloch's Nigun. Just twenty, she was stylish as well as virtuoso in her performance. The piece was a perfect choice for the setting  – the magnificent Dohány Street Synagogue is particularly important for its spiritual function  – and Júlia played it with passion, respect and with a lovely unforced tone throughout. Her virtuoso left hand and her impressive bow control combined in presenting what sounded like the ancient Jewish soul.

I was somewhat uncomfortable with Bruch's Kol Nidrei which Ágnes Pusker played. The piece was composed for cello and symphony orchestra although several other arrangements have also been made. As an ex-cellist (who knows the piece well), I could not get my head round this version for violin and string orchestra. For instance, the second section of the original composition brings in the second melody over an important harp accompaniment. In the cello-piano arrangement, the piano presents all those harp arpeggios over the second melody. But a string orchestra cannot create those harp arpeggios. These sentiments are no reflection on Ágnes Pusker's playing. Few years older than her sister Júlia, Ágnes is evidently experienced, controlled and feels at home on the stage.

The sisters' performance of Pablo de Sarasate's Navarra for two violins and orchestra ('Spanish Dance'), op.33 was sensational. Their ensemble playing was spotless and their virtuosity seemed effortless. They reminded one of the French Labèque sisters that is pianists Katia and Marielle. Although some forty years older than the Pusker sisters, they too are just a few years apart and they too produce superb ensemble playing. Katia is the older and more extrovert of the pair, seemingly setting the musical tone. During the Sarasate performance Júlia Pusker followed older sister Ágnes's every breath admirably while Ágnes was fully aware and responsive to the ensemble. The Labèque sisters had and continue to have varied and successful careers, together and individually, bringing joy to millons of music lovers. The Pusker sisters are on the same path. 

Thursday, 30th August, Hungarian String Trio (Viktória Szilvásy violin, András Rudolf viola, Bálint Maróth violoncello), St. Michael’s Church, Inner City, Budapest

The theme of this concert seemed to have been Mozart partly by virtue of programming compositions by Mozart's contemporaries (although Mozart was not included) and partly by themes in the last two pieces. Michael Haydn's C major Divertimento might be more fun to play than to listen to, although its melodies make for easy listening. Boccherini's E flat trio (op. 14 No. 5) is much more of a challenge musically as well as technically; some difficult viola passages were delivered admirably by András Rudolf. The C major violin-viola duo (Op. 9) by Alessandro Rolla is witty but also substantial in musical thoughts. Each of the two instruments get passages which would be in place in a concerto for their instruments and each in turn get to provide the orchestra-like accompaniment. Team work between violinist Viktória Szilvásy and violist Rudolf was examplary; at times they really sounded like soloists with an orchestra. Hummel's trio in G major (Op. 35) is somewhat operatic and challenges the violinist for some perpetuum mobile playing in one of its sections. Szilvásy coped evidently effortlessly. Unexpectedly, the piece concludes with a quotation from Papageno's aria 'Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja' from Die Zauberflöte. Unlike the opening piece on this concert, the concluding number that is Beethoven's variations on Mozart's theme 'La ci darem la mano' (Don Giovanni), Wo O. 28, was great fun to listen to (and presumably to play too, even though Beethoven might have intended it for a wind trio). Furthermore, this early pre-opus Beethoven piece gave finally a chance to cellist Bálint Maróth too to indulge in some virtuosity. Full marks to the Hungarian String Trio for their professionalism – such concerts have to be fitted into their busy orchestra lives – and for their sustenance power. Not only did they play without any break (for some 70 minutes) but the two upper string players were standing throughout. This was true labour of love with artistic merit.

By Agnes Kory