The musicians are already tuning up in the rehearsal room of the National Philharmonic Orchestra.
Manager László Samu gives instruction how items are to be packed up at the weekend. Some things are to sent to a warehouse in Soroksári Rd, others to the Castle District – because by September 30th, they all have to be moved from the Vörösmárty Square office building. This move is temporary, because the orchestra's new home is still being built as part of the Millennium City Centre.
Zoltán Kocsis, general music director and conductor, greets the ensemble – and the first orchestra rehearsal of the Bartók-Kocsis Twenty Hungarian Folk Songs begins. Kocsis has orchestrated fifteen of the twenty songs. He does his work on a computer: the musicians make alterations on the parts as they go, writing supplementary information on their own individual scores. This rehearsal is full of life but not spectacular. The conductor offers a different face, as do the musicians, than they will during the evening concert. From time to time, Kocsis contemplates what he demands at the piano behind him.
During the break, I asked Kocsis about the world premiere of his version of the Twenty Hungarian Folk Songs. “Perhaps I am alone in my opinion, but I think the Twenty Hungarian Folk Songs is one of Bartók's major works” he says. “At the very least, it is of equal value to the compositions written around the same time, the two violin rhapsodies, the Fourth Quartet, the first two piano concertos and Cantata Profana. We can sense the mood of all these works in the songs, just as all Bartók's works stand in relation to each other.”
The five folk songs which Bartók composed in an orchestral version in 1933 are: a Tömlöcben (No. 1.) (In the jail), Régi keserves (No. 2.) (Old Bitter Song) , Sárga csikó (No. 11.) (Yellow foal), Virágéknál ég a világ (No. 12.) (the Sky is blossoming with flowers) and Panasz (No. 14.) (Lament). Bartók transcribed these five songs for small orchestra, but had no opportunity to do so for full scale orchestra. Last year, Zoltán Kocsis wrote transcriptions of the remaining fifteen songs for large orchestra. “I would never have started on this project if I had not already played the original voice and piano version many times,” he explains.
At the opening concert of the Budapest Music Weeks, the night before the anniversary of Bartók's death, this now complete cycle received its world premiere. What did the conductor concentrate on, as he rehearsed this unique work with the orchestra, I asked. “You have to rehearse so that the orchestra can grasp the quintessence of these works as swiftly as possible: the text of the songs, their basic character and the tempos to be played. The musicians will already have looked through their own parts, and have practised them” came the reply. As is common knowledge, from time to time, there are problems regarding the right to perform and rework Bartók compositions. “It's quite a considerable achievement” remarks Kocsis, “that Péter Bartók did not forbid it. It is a pain that the rights and obligations of someone approaching another's authors work as a co-creator have yet to be clarified. Fidelity to text and style are two terms which it is possible to muddle up on the basis of this or that interest. Whatever extent a reworking is in the spirit of the relevant composer, if something differs from the original text, then it become questionable. But Bartók himself included parts and even extra bars into his transcription, which are not present in the original.”
The choice of program came up almost by itself at the end of our conversation. “When I was working on the orchestration of the Six Forint song,” said Kocsis, “it was conspicuous that its Romanian atmosphere, which Bartók betrays while working on a Hungarian song, is what we find in the second violin rhapsody. So I invited Barnabas Kelemen, who will play the First Rhapsody as well. Alongside these relatively rarely performed works, I decided on the Concerto, so that the ensemble can show just how they can perform a work that is frequently played and weighed down with tradition and pseudo-tradition. We ourselves have performed it many times; the orchestra plays with such stylistic fidelity that I would dare venture that we are the best in the world. The Concerto is typically a work in which we can measure, despite the great fluctuations, how the tradition started by János Ferencsik of orchestral playing still lives, even though only three or four musicians played under him. Many feared that the orchestra would lose its profile. It has certainly lost its ultraconservative profile, but by the same token, the good elements of the tradition have remained; I see this in every work which was part of the Ferencsik repertoire.”
Zoltán Kocsis calls for silence at times during the rehearsal. His sharp voice resonates from his contemplation: “You have to be ugly!” – is the instruction for the “tutti”, because it is evoking a swine dance. And just how beautiful “ugly” can be – this was apparent to all at the concert.