Budapest Concert and Opera Report: 26 August – 7 September 2011

Various artists and venues

9 September 2011

BudapestMusical events are not as numerous in Budapest during the summer as they are during the rest of the year, and publicity for them seems to be under strength. Nevertheless, although sadly I missed out on some under-publicised but probably high quality events (such as a recital of Liszt compositions given by eminent pianist Dezso Ránki in the Budapest Liszt Museum), my concert and opera attendances in and outside Budapest provided an interesting mixture of experiences.

Friday 26 August: Baroque concert in Kismaros

I had planned to attend a Haydn concert in Fertoszentmiklós, one of Prince Eszterházy's residences during Haydn's tenure in the prince's service. But the prospect of two three-hour train journeys to and from Budapest, and the following three-kilometres walk from the train station to the venue (which neither public transport nor taxis serve) in some 40 Celsius temperature put a damper on my enthusiasm for Haydn in its historical environment. Instead I opted for a seemingly low-key baroque concert in Kismaros.

Kismaros lies some 56 km north of Budapest in the astonishingly beautiful Bend of the Danube. This concert in a church on a hill above Kismaros served as part of an annual baroque festival with concerts mostly in villages at the foot of the mountain Börzsöny. (I cannot report about the venues which were hosting the festival in other villages, but for sure I had to negotiate a two-kilometre walk to and from the train station of Kismaros to reach the church on the hill above it).

Admission to this afternoon concert was free, and there were a surprisingly great number of children in the audience. I expected a pleasant afternoon in beautiful surroundings, but I caught a high-quality concert fit for any venue anywhere. Violinist Márta Ábrahám, harpsichord player Miklós Spányi, and violone player György Schweigert performed works by Bach, Händel and Corelli. Ábrahám and Schweigert produced a pure tone coupled with rock-solid virtuosity – their playing in Corelli's Follia variations was mesmerising – while Spányi's phrasing, structural control and cantabile treatment of his percussive harpsichord could have served as a masterclass in expressive playing on a keyboard.

Saturday 27 August: Piano recital by Edit Klukon and Dezso Ránki, Liszt Week, Esztergom

This was another event for car owners and fanatic enthusiasts only. The archbishopric of Esztergom was a historical diocese created in 1000 by Stephen I of Hungary. After the Treaty of Trianon its territory was greatly reduced and in 1993 it became the Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest. In Hungary the Archbishop of Esztergom ranks as the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. However, Esztergom seems to have been much worse effected by the current financial crisis than Canterbury. Struggling with a lack of finance, a year ago Esztergom suspended public transport during weekends while, I understand, a month or so ago this suspension was extended to all times. Yet the top of the hill in Esztergom not only provides a lovely view of the Bend of the Danube, but it also incorporates the old castle with the Esztergom Basilica – the seat of the Catholic Church in Hungary – which was completed in 1856. The consecration ceremonies featured the premiere of the Missa solennis zur Einweihung der Basilika in Gran (Gran Mass), composed and conducted by Liszt. This link prompted the Liszt Society (of Hungary) to set up their annual Liszt Week in Esztergom each summer, now in the fifth year of running.

The first half of the Klukon-Ránki recital consisted of rarely performed piano pieces performed by Edit Klukon, who played with obvious dedication and total commitment. Her musicality and controlled passion were admirable. However, she played all pieces without any interval (for 60 minutes) and unless one was familiar with the pieces, it was easy to loose track. I am afraid this happened to me, so I wish Klukon would have facilitated longer pauses (even if these would have prompted applause) between the pieces. She played 'Pater noster' and 'Ave Maria' from the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, then Recueillement, Am Grabe Richard Wagners, Ave Maria (from Nine ecclesial choruses), In festo transfigurationis Domini, Fünf Klavierstücke, Ave Maria (für die grosse Klavierschule von Lebert und Stark), then twelve choral transcriptions and finally 'Angelus!' from Années de Pélerinage.

The second half of the concert, with Klukon now joined by Ránki, consisted of Via Crucis, Les 14 Stations de la Croix in the four-hand piano version. It was easier to keep track of things here than it had been before the interval but, even so, arguably one would have been more on top of the material in the version for mixed choir, vocal soloists and piano. On the other hand, the musical unity between Klukon and Ránki was so perfect that the experience of such unique chamber music performance outweighed the advantages of knowing for sure which station of Christ's journey were reached at any given time.

Sunday 28 August: Mária Horváth soprano, Miklós Teleki organ, St. Michael’s Church

Back in Budapest, it was a relief to reach a concert without strenuous climbing of hills. And what a pleasant concert it was. Solo organ pieces, including such favourites as Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, alternated with popular songs and arias from what János Dobra, who had devised the programme, summarized as Evergreen Church Music. I was astonished by the virtuosity needed (and delivered by Miklós Teleki) for Boelmann's Gothique Suite for organ, and I cannot but admire Mária Horváth who, without fail, delivers musically as well as technically at her concerts (several of which I have attended in the past).

Tuesday 30 August: 'Vienna Salon', Jewish Festival, Rumbach synagogue, Budapest

BudapestIt is not entirely clear why this concert was advertised and shown in the programme notes as An Evening with Orsolya Korcsolán: although she is undoubtedly a formidable violinist, the concert actually featured three artists, not one. Korcsolán opened with an excellent rendering of a Hungarian Chasidic tune for solo violin. Florian Krumpöck gave a virtuoso performance of Alfred Grünfeld's Soire de Vienne for piano. The piece is a witty set of paraphrases on themes mostly from Johann Strauss's Fledermaus. Sensitively accompanied by Krumpöck on the piano, Gergely Sugár on horn gave a moving account of Joseph Sulzer's Sarabande. Sugár's tone quality made it clear why the horn belongs to woodwind rather than brass instruments, although one would have been forgiven for thinking that Sugár – a member of the Vienna Philharmonic – was singing (rather than blowing into some curved pipes). Brahms's Horn trio Op. 40 received a committed performance from the three artists, with Sugár's exquisite horn playing reminding me that this was primarily a horn trio, rather than a violin or piano trio.

Saturday 3 September: Matinee recital hosted by the Liszt Museum of Budapest; Károly Mocsári, piano

Without doubt, the distinguished pianist Károly Mocsári – a winner of the 1986 International Liszt Competition of Budapest – knows Liszt well. However, some of the pieces, all dating from the 1860s to 1885 (that is, from late Liszt), might not be so ingrained in his repertoire; hence he played those pieces from sheet music. Nevertheless, 'Unstern!' as well as 'Trauervorspiel und Trauermarsch' received powerful performances, with well-chosen accentuation and musical diction. I was surprised by the sudden, unexpected ending (by the composer) in 'Vörösmarty' and 'Petofi' from Historische Ungarische Bildnisse but greatly appreciated Mocsári's mastery of controlled tension in 'Funérailles, October 1849'. After several other relatively lesser known pieces, all of which were performed with exemplary artistic dignity, Mocsári rewarded the enthusiastic audience with a spell-binding performance of one of Liszt's Rhapsodies, which was clearly familiar territory for audience and artist alike.

Saturday 3 September: Unexpected musical encounter, Madách Square, Budapest

The István Örkény Theatre and the Council of Erzsébetváros (formerly also known as Budapest's seventh district) arranged a day of 'free for all' open-air celebrations on this relatively small square, which is below the size of Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Circus. My office room happens to be in a building on this square and I grew up in this district, so I felt duty-bound to attend for a while. My loyalty was amply awarded when a piano was brought to the specially erected stage, closely followed by the eminent pianist/conductor Zoltán Kocsis. Before he performed 'Sunt lacrymae rerum/En mode hongrois' (There are Tears for Things/In the Hungarian Mode) from the third volume of Années de pčlerinage) (Years of Pilgrimage), Kocsis drew attention to the modernity which presages Bartók. Kocsis played as if on any concert stage in the world and was afterwards somewhat upset about one particular note which did not satisfy him. If only one could stumble upon such performances more often on small inner-city squares! (Credit is also due to sound engineer László Busai whose job was to amplify – but not override – Kocsis's playing.)

Sunday 4 September: Bánk bán, Hungarian State Opera, Budapest

BudapestThese are turbulent times for the Hungarian State Opera. Three different sets of music directors and general directors have arrived and left over the past year or so, the last such change having taken place only a few days ago. Yet such was the standard of performance at the opening night of the season, the audience would not have even guessed the scale of problems.

Ferenc Erkel's Bánk bán is regarded as Hungary's national opera, and I thought I knew it. But, of course, I knew the version which was greatly altered textually as well as musically by Kálmán Nádasdy and Nándor Rékay respectively in 1940. Presumably the pair felt entitled to make these changes because Erkel himself as well as his composer sons made alterations after the 1861 premier, furthermore the five copies of the score surviving from the 19th century greatly differ from each other. Erkel's librettist Béni Egressy took József Katona's drama (completed in 1833) as his source, while Katona based his play on true historical events: Gertrude of Meran (1185-1213), the wife of King András II, was indeed murdered by those opposing her influence at the Hungarian Court.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Erkel's birth, in the 2010-11 season the Hungarian Opera presented a semi-staged concert performance of Erkel's original version, which thus returned to the House after a seventy-year hiatus. Afterwards some cuts were made and this is the version which now opened the 2011-12 opera season. Having now heard Erkel's original, I can only guess what Erkel would have made of the Nádasdy-Rékay version of 1940, which mistakenly entered the communal Hungarian consciousness as Erkel’s and for many years opened each season.

The excitement for the return of the original version was coupled with the excitement for the return of soprano Éva Marton to the stage of the Hungarian Opera House. After many decades of a flourishing international career and consequent residency abroad, Marton returned to Hungary a few years ago and now teaches, as head of the vocal department at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. However, it is only now that she has also returned to the stage of the Hungarian Opera House. Bánk bán starts with the entrance of Gertrudis: 'The Queen' shout all the courtiers, and she makes her grand entrance. It was truly a grand entrance for Gertrudis as well as for Marton. Her stage presence is powerful and she knows how to sing. But great artists, like the rest of us, are mortal, and for the power of her voice at its best perhaps we should look at some of Marton’s earlier (recorded) performances.

Whether Marton's presence galvanised or hindered the other singers is hard to tell. However, Marton's ex-student tenor Dániel Pataki Potyók (Ottó) sang beautifully and there were notable contributions by baritone Mihály Kálmándy (Petur bán) and bass-baritone Lajos Geiger (Biberach). For me tenor János Bándi (Bánk bán) and baritone Béla Perencz (Tiborc) represented the artistic peak, comparable to the greatest artists on international stages. Mention must also be made of the high quality Hungarian dance (1st Act) choreographed by Zoltán 'Batyu' Farkas and performed by members of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. Conductor Domonkos Héja, the most recent music director of the opera company, led a tasteful and musical performance, while director Csaba Káel skilfully adopted his 2002 staging of the previously performed version. Erkel, who preferred his original version to those which were revised by even himself and his sons, would have been pleased.

The sizeable portion of non-Hungarians in the audience had to make do with an English synopsis in the programme notes: the English surtitles (usually accompanying Hungarian operas or performances in the Hungarian language) will be ready for Bánk bán in the spring

Wednesday 7 September: Ravel's Bolero and Bartók's Bluebeard’s Castle in 3D, Hungarian State Opera, Budapest

BudapestAccording to the publicity, this was the first time ever anywhere that 3D has been used elsewhere than on the cinema screen. It was an all-time first for me which somewhat distracted my focus from the Bolero choreography, premiered this evening, by Lola Greco and staged/performed by her Lola Greco Ballet Ensemble. It is also possible that the 3D elements, by Nima Gazestani, were actually overdone in this production: for instance, it is hard to focus on dancers on the stage when a rose 'appears' in the auditorium and it gets bigger and bigger, overpowering the stage and auditorium. Nevertheless, it was clear that these Spanish dancers were eminently suited to the strongly Flamenco-flavoured choreography depicting one of the many European versions of the Bluebeard story. However, I am not convinced that Ravel's Bolero is the most ideal companion piece to Bluebeard’s Castle, even if Lola Greco’s somewhat erotic choreography may be regarded as a measured contrast to the psychological struggle between Bartók’s Bluebeard and Judith.

The concept for the 3D staging for Bluebeard's Castle and its companion piece on the evening originates from Ildikó Komlósi, an exceptional Judith as I witnessed few years ago in London. It is therefore somewhat disheartening that on the world premier of the realisation of her concept I could hardly hear her; either she sung too softly or the orchestra was too loud. On the practical principle that 'if the accompanist can’t hear what he or she accompanies then he or she is too loud,' I risk putting the blame on conductor György Gyoriványi Ráth. It was slightly easier to hear István Kovács, a truly noble Bluebeard, but it was still hard work. (Is it feasible that seat 8 in row 15 of the stalls has bad acoustics?) Yet both artists clearly identified with their roles textually as well as musically.

The 3D effects in Bluebeard's Castle (by Andrew Quinn) worked beautifully. Indeed, arguably it is hard to stage Bartók's opera satisfactorily, as it depicts vivid pictures of the castle and its seven hidden rooms yet remains a psychological drama. In Komlósi's concept we get the best of both words: two people on stage trying to make sense of their relationship while 3D effects suggest what they may experience, although possibly only in their minds. The 3D effects were created using the Touch Designer software, invented by Greg Hermanovic.

Water ballet, Margaret Island, Budapest

Near the Margaret Bridge entrance to Margaret Island, there is fountain which all day long during the summer months 'performs' imaginative choreography to a large selection of pieces. It is free for all, and one can sit on the grass or on a park bench, picking the best possible view. Water flows from several – at least up to twenty or more – holes, and dances to the music. Ensemble work is, of course, perfect, and I usually find the choreography (or dramaturgy, as specified on a note pinned to a tree) imaginative. This summer's programme and dramaturgy were designed by Péter Karlócai (Technoconsult) and consisted of Scherzo and Allegro Vivace from Beethoven’s 3rd (Eroica) Symphony, Kodály's Háry Intermezzo, Dies Irae from Mozart’s Requiem, the Hungarian Dance from Swan Lake, the March from Nutcracker, The Viennese Musical Clock and the Entry of the Imperial Court from Kodály's János Háry, the Torreadors from the Carmen suite, the Fox Dance from Leó Weiner's Divertimento No. 1, Andrea Boccelli's Melodramma, Allegro animato (Dance of the Gnomes) from Liszt's A major piano concerto, Strauss's Kaiser waltz, the Finale of Sleeping Beauty and Andrea Boccelli's Time to say Good-by.

Life can be hard in Hungary. But, as seen, good music is around, even in unlikely scenarios. Long may it continue so.

By Agnes Kory

Photos: Márta Ábrahám by Csaba Dömény; Orsolya Korcsolán by Tamás Vajda; Éva Marton; Bluebeard by György Jókúti


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