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Accentuating the Positive

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
02/02/2003 -  
Franz Liszt: Les Preludes; Concerto # 1
Bela Bartok: Dance Suite
Zoltan Kodaly: Hary Janos Suite

Hungarian National Philharmonic
Zoltan Kocsis (piano and conductor)

In what would turn out to be his last filmed interview, Georg Solti expounded on his assertion that only Hungarians could properly perform the works of Bartók. As a forceful example, the maestro played the first few measures of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle on the piano in the style that we have all come to appreciate and recognize as idiomatically familiar. Then, he read through the same music exactly as it is written on the printed page. The contrast was stunningly revelatory. Without the ingrained and implied tradition of Balkan accents, the music was foursquare, metronomic and dispassionate. Even perusing the Urtext with a microscope, one would not find the key to unlock these doors without prior immersion in the culture of the Danube. In the repertoire for the violin, the verbunkos section of Contrasts comes to mind: a stranger to the ways of the Gypsy cannot possibly put across these complicated stresses and rhythms meaningfully.

Sir Georg himself performed the Dance Suite in two distinct ways: the version conducted in Budapest during a Chicago Symphony tour in his last years much wilder and atavistic than that for US consumption. Bartók’s fine ear for color imbues the piece with primitive sound: the use of the unpitched bass drum rather than the tuned timpani, for example, giving the rhythmic underscoring a more tribal feel (cf. the same composer’s orchestration of his piano piece Bear Dance). Since the best Bartók that I have heard in recent years was the piano recital of Zoltan Kocsis at the 92nd Street Y, I attended this concert of the Hungarian Philharmonic with Mr. Kocsis as both pianist and conductor with high expectations.

And, miraculously, those expectations were not only fulfilled but surpassed. From the first few measures of Les Preludes, whose heroic quality inspired maestro to dedicate its performance to the victims of the shuttle explosion, it was apparent that this was a superior orchestra: sensuous strings, extremely disciplined and precise winds, lower brass to die for. The shockingly luminescent eloquence of the group (LP collectors will remember them as the Hungarian State Symphony) complimented Kocsis’ stunning traversal of the concerto especially well, this performance, as my companion observed, a Panavision Hollywood-style affair, alternately zooming in on the hands of a Paul Henreid or John Garfield and pulling back to the rapt visages of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Kocsis is first and foremost a major concert piano superstar (much to his chagrin) with steely fingers and superbly muscular execution of phrase. The crowd, precluded by the conductor’s dedication from applauding after the first piece, erupted in peals of clapping after this white-hot extravaganza. If one is going to play Liszt, than one might as well go all of the way.

The Bartók was an especially nimble traversal, with truly unique phrasing decisions distinguishing it as an authentically ethnomusicological piece of scholarship. This accenting phenomenon is difficult to communicate in mere words and one really needed to hear the slight pauses and minute accelerations of each section of melodic line to fully appreciate the profundity of this version, but, trust me, this was music making of the highest possible order. The piece incorporates dances from many cultures, including Arabian and Turkish (but, unfortunately for the punster, not Apache) and it was fascinating to experience the subtle changes of rhythm, fulfilling, in their shadings, the more normally utilized functions of tonal color, balanced so expertly. Perhaps this is not so surprising, as virtually all of these Hungarian players are graduates of the Liszt Academy, where both Bartók and Kodaly were master teachers, each with his own revolutionary method of pedagogy. Kocsis further impressed by foregoing the big gesture in favor of the more subtle tempo shift, sacrificing momentarily perhaps some of the crowd’s adulation, but knowing that he would be crowned once again with the laurel wreath after his band’s magnificently colorful interpretation of Háry János, complete with verbunkos and a cimbalom player in native costume, a visual reminder of what we were all really doing here in the first place. The playing of the entire ensemble was so expert as to put almost all American orchestras to shame; it seems almost too precious to single out any individuals, but I would be remiss in not mentioning the shimmering solos of flutist Anita Szabó or the burnished, smoky flavors of violist András Rudolf, who seemed to be the spiritual leader of this fabulous troupe.

For encores, Kocsis trotted out, in his own phrase, the “honorary Hungarians” Johannes Brahms (Dance # 10) and Hector Berlioz (what else?). Just when we thought that we couldn’t enjoy this concert any more, the rhythmic handclapping of the large Magyar population in the audience accompanying the Rákóscy March sealed the fate of this afternoon as that of the best musical experience of the season thus far.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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