Two Budapest orchestras launched their 2005/6 concert seasons with success, opening with concerts to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Béla Bartók's death.
The Hungarian National Philharmonic takes the cake for the best kickoff with its performance of Bartók's The Wooden Prince on September 23, with maestro Zoltán Kocsis conducting. With the orchestra sunk down into a pit, operastyle, the stage of the National Concert Hall became host to the magical artistry of the Budapest Puppet Theater. The collaborative effort resulted in the best Wooden Prince I've yet seen. Bartók's ballet is often performed at the Opera, but having real dancers can in no way compete with the true fairy tale feeling created by the unusually imaginative puppeteers.
The fighting trees, the grotesque lovemaking of the Princess and Wooden Prince, the Prince's suffering, and especially the spectacular, colorful underwater scene, were nothing less than awesome. Kocsis coached emotionally powerful music from his band to create an unforgettable experience.
I feel so enthusiastic about this production that nothing would please me more than if Kocsis were to create a whole series of puppet ballets with the puppet troupe. The National Philharmonic also gave a rousing rendition of Mahler's Seventh Symphony under the baton of Zoltán Peskó on October 7.
After a slightly uncertain first few minutes, orchestra and conductor settled in and wound up with a first movement so exciting that I wanted to applaud, though I was constrained by that abominable contemporary concert etiquette of silence between movements. (In Mahler's day, the audience showed its approval by applauding after movements, even demanding an immediate encore of that movement, and in Mozart's day listeners even applauded during a movement for an especially successful passage.)
The second movement of the Seventh was nicely spooky and grotesque, classic Mahler. With so many clashingly divergent elements thrown into sharp contrast (march, tango, waltz, Klezmer, and things that go bump in the night), the Philharmonic showed Mahler as a kind of Pre-Post-Modern composer, to use a rather bizarre image.
Finally, Peskó gave the symphony a solid and effective, if somewhat unoriginal, reading.
(The Budapest Sun, October 13, 2005)