On November 4th at the Music Academy, just before Dezső Ránki's solo recital, one of the concert organisers, László Jakobi made the dramatic announcement that because of a hand injury, Zoltán Kocsis has had to cancel all his recitals.
Magyar Narancs: Just how serious is this affliction?
Zoltán Kocsis: It's not tragic in the least. It is true that I injured one of my fingers last January, the skin layer cured only slowly and actually grew back badly. I missed out on two months of practise and had to consider what to cancel; concerts which required continuous piano playing, for example, a tour of Europe with violinist Joshua Bell or my January performance with pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in Budapest. Or should I cancel concerts which required only a more modest amount of piano playing, such as the planned concert with the Birmingham orchestra or György Kurtág's birthday concert on February 19th, 2006. I decided on the former solution. But my hand has healed nicely, and two weeks ago for example, I played Mozart's Piano Concerto in A major in Lyon.
MN: Since you have mentioned Kurtág, let me bring up a recent minor scandal! The National Philharmonic Orchestra performed Shostakovich's Song of the Forest which to some degree, is a cantata praising Stalin and many protested because of this. But now we know that in the fifties, Kurtág at the start of his career wrote music praising the Rákosi regime….
ZK: Sure. I recently spoke to him about it. Actually I long had a plan to evoke the musical ideals of the totalitarian systems as part of my series at the Gundel restaurant, as a kind of lesson. Well, Kurtág certainly had a place because he also wrote “songs for the masses”. But there were very few who didn't. Kurtág told me that they commissioned a “song for the masses” from him which was seen again a few weeks later on a flyer with quite a different text but unchanged music. So they were really at the mercy of the regime.
MN: OK, let me put it phrase it more precisely: why did you have to perform a cantata praising Stalin in this day and age?
ZK: It is not a Stalin cantata! If Shostakovich didn't write it, then he would have been run over by a car or put in jail for a long time. The Party absolutely needed a prominent composer living there to place his faith in the regime. But of course, this raises a great many questions. Why didn't Shostakovich leave, why didn't he emigrate? I don't know. But I think he made a wise decision. Although he chose an unhappy, bleak and hopeless life, he did not abandon his native land, and his relationship with it. It seems this was stronger than his horror of the regime. He remained Russian to the end of his life, far more so than Prokofiev who lived abroad for quite a while and often followed the fashions. Shostakovich was proud that he did not follow trends, and his language was too individual for originality not to insinuate itself into the most vulgar seeming thoughts as well. When you listen to the 9th Symphony, which was actually written halfway between the war and Stalin's death, we feel a sense of total hopelessness seeping from the slow movement. And we might think of the tiny four by four room, similar to the one that the world famous Sviatoslav Richter also lived in! You see the firewall through the window, you see the grayness and the decaying plaster, the offices smelling of rotten eggs, the hawk-like Party women. And if that wasn't enough, there was the fear that at dawn, a black car would draw up outside the house and the secret police would arrive. On an aesthetic plane, this was no where embodied more flexibly than in Shostakovich, who many considered the minion of the regime. But he was really persecuted. And yet he could retain his artistic freedom in a totalitarian system, and was able to find the little side alleys and musical niches through which he express his own truth. That is a bigger deal than if someone emigrates. Prokofiev went, Rachmaninov left and their creative work suffered significantly. True, Prokofiev later returned although there rumours were that this was because he had accrued such massive debts playing cards in Paris that he'd rather return to the horrors of the Soviet Union than pay them! Shostakovich survived Stalinism as an artist and has a deserving place in the musical pantheon. Schoenberg was right when he stated that he was a great talent. And if Schoenberg said that about someone, they will survive every system.
MN: So your answer is that it was right to perform this piece? But what is your answer to the question that, OK, Shostakovich was a fine composer but why not play a masterpiece from his very rich oeuvre, why play an obscure and politically suspect work?
ZK: When we performed the incidental music that Beethoven wrote to Kotzebue's King Stephen, the true content of which is nothing less than “long live the Habsburgs”, no one protested. Of course, if we had done it a hundred years earlier, then I dare say there might have been people who were still alive in the Haynau, Bach era etc and who would have been painfully affected by this musical work.
MN: Then this present sensitivity is understandable, since not such a lot of time has passed since Stalin's death and the end of the Soviet Union.
ZK: Understandable and absolutely tolerable. But I think that people who preach Christian forgiveness, well they should practise this at the appropriate moment. We hear a lot of talk these days about love, tolerance, forgiveness. Well, here you are! Let's practise these virtues! If we just grump and grumble, that leads nowhere. Jesus started something, showed some kind of path. Perhaps his demands can be fulfilled but it is better to at least try.
MN: 2006 is Bartók year. What do you expect from the jubilee?
ZK: In the current financial and cultural situation, I don't expect anything.
ZK: Why should I expect anything?
MN: There are obviously plans…
ZK: Yes, let's say the winners of Megastar (TV talent show) will sing Bartók songs. But what has happened so far is pretty shameful.
MN: What happened?
ZK: Nothing happened. They called together a committee, some gremium was formed. But I barely expect that those questions will find solutions which surfaced ages ago in connection to Bartók.
MN: Could you be more concrete?
ZK: For example, the matter of the complete Bartók publication.
MN: So far as I know, there are eight volumes waiting to go to press, but for a number of different reasons, they have yet to be published.
ZK: The entire publication would reach forty eight volumes. This is what László Somfai, who recently retired as director of the Bartók Archive, told me fifteen years ago. And since then, not a single volume has been published! Also unanswered is the old question of Hungaroton's plans to refresh their complete Bartók recording series, or perhaps to launch another because we don't want some of the scandalously poor performances they have re-released. I don't know what will come of it. But there will be some gala concerts and then they will continue to support light music. This is what will happen. Actually, I'd very much like to believe that this is just opportunism on behalf of cultural government and that after the elections, the situation will change. So if the opposition enter power things will change, or if the present government is returned, they will have no more use for the segment they are courting to win the election. This is the way it is going. It is as if someone decided that from tomorrow we will support prostitution. We'll support something which is flourishing, blossoming and where there is a significant boom.
MN: If I understand you correctly, you are talking about state support for rock music…
KZ: I am, yes. I am convinced that European musical culture is not exhausted, it's stupid. Anyone who says that doesn't know contemporary serious music and they should have been present at the premiere of Zoltán Jeney's work Funerary Ritual in October which – to put it mildly – struck everyone with the power of its freshness. But we can also look at the success of works by Kurtág or Ligeti among Western audiences. I emphasise audiences, not butter eared experts! Rock music goes happily by itself. To start teaching it is meaningless because there is nothing to learn, it is so infinitely simple. It is as if primary schools were to teach “two plus two is four” non stop for eight years. But a great many have expressed their opinions about this, not even cynically. I would say that if it carries on like this, then there will be a dictatorship here within minutes. Which will naturally bring with it persecution, the exercising of ruler privilege etc. A few years ago, one of our distinguished conductors called those in power “cultural criminals”. A great many people got angry then but I think the situation is worse today.
MN: You touched on Hungaroton planning new Bartók recordings. I have to admit that I listen to the Philips recording frequently on which you play the three piano concertos with Iván Fischer conducting the Festival Orchestra. It is a magnificent recording but quite old, made in the eighties. Isn't it time to record these works again? I put this question to Iván Fischer a few months ago, but he didn't seem particularly interested.
ZK: Of course, because on this basis, you could ask why doesn't Dezső Ránki play the piano and I conduct.
MN: Good, then I'm asking.
ZK: To be honest, I regard the Festival orchestra recording as being pretty valid even today, although it is possible that the same people could play it better. But I think that we need something new. So I could imagine a better First and Second Piano Concerto. But the Third Piano Concerto is particularly dear to me, because that was the first and it was because of this that Philips decided to record all three concertos. But even so, we need something new. I have such a relationship with Dezső Ránki and we have played this works so often both in Hungary and abroad that I would say that this is perhaps the best combination.
MN: I have my own idea actually. Can I tell you?
ZK: Please do.
MN: Péter Eötvös conducting, Zoltán Kocsis playing the piano.
ZK: That wouldn't be bad. But you would have to ask Eötvös about that. The question of the two piano and violin sonatas is unresolved as well, perhaps you could count in Barnabás Kelemen. But I don't want to get too far ahead, so if something concrete emerges then I'd be happy to talk about it. But there needs to be financial guarantees. And at the present moment, no one has money for anything. I'll give you an example. Recently, we performed Bartók's Wooden Prince in collaboration with artists from the Budapest Marionette Theatre. This was enthusiastically received and we thought that we would record the performance on video so it might later be a DVD. It turned out there was no money for this recording.
MN: You mentioned your guest performance two weeks ago in Lyon. You were also present as a composer, or more accurately, an orchestrater.
ZK: Yes, I conducted Orchestre National de Lyon three times and they premiered four of my Liszt orchestrations and played Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin with my orchestrated supplementary movements, the Fugue and Toccata, which Ravel didn't write for orchestra. I have to say that I have never seen such willingness in a foreign orchestra before. Since I was there, I visited György Kurtág who now lives in a small village next to Bordeaux in total isolation, he barely moves from the house and almost no one has heard of him in the village. This meeting was an unbelievable experience, because it seems that nothing has changed since the late sixties, as if I had gone back in time thirty years. He doesn't enquire who is world famous, how well known someone is, he is only interested in human and artistic truths. Kurtág couldn't care who is communicating an artistic value, the essence is that it be interesting for him. The greatest names could come, of course, they could never fool him. These days we talk every day on the phone, he is preparing for his February birthday concert and I saw him in a physical and mental state that suggests he may yet complete his great piano concerto which he started writing so long ago.
Zoltán András Bán
(Magyar Narancs, November 24, 2005)