Virtually every week, the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Zoltán Kocsis are awarded some prestigious Hungarian or international prize for their joint Bartók SACD recording. Released by Hungaroton, it has won the Café Momus prize, the Gramofon prize and the Classical Internet Award. Most recently, it carried off Pizzicato magazine's Supersonic Award. There is no question that this is one of the most successful classical music recordings of the year.
You have directed the National Philharmonic Orchestra and its predecessor, the State Symphony Orchestra, since 1997. And yet you only have only just started to make recordings with them. Why did you wait so long?
There is such tremendous mass production of recordings these days and consequently, so much rubbish produced, that there is a real glut of middle ranking material. Only something truly above average can hope to stand out from the crowd. These awards and critical articles prove we have now reached this higher level. What really interests me is why I was chosen to receive these prizes. When I recorded the complete Bartók piano music for Philips, the question was whether I would succeed in performing some lesser known works with the same intensity and love I bring to the greater compositions. Now, they are asking whether I can bring my Bartók idiom to orchestral playing or not. If someone has studied Bartók's playing, his music, the relevant literature, and listened to a great deal of peasant music, then sooner or later that person will be capable of playing him. But when you have eighty musicians of different ages, abilities and temperaments all playing together, it is very difficult to realise a unity of will. Especially when we are talking about a parlando-rubato style of playing which is barely tangible. From this perspective, I believe no one can object to this recording. I'm not saying it is the final word, because everything can change, or take on a new colour and develop. But one thing is for sure: we were not unsuccessful.
I believe that as a result of the CD's reception at MIDEM and the recent shower of awards, Hungaroton is now planning a complete Bartók series with you and the orchestra. What are the next works to be recorded?
Well, as I said when I was recording the Bartók piano works for Philips, there is no need to hurry. There are good works and less good ones, some which give themselves easily, others you have to really fight for. So we have to choose circumspectly. In my opinion there is no first rate recording anywhere of Bartók's two orchestral suites, because everyone regards them as leftovers and wants to get them out of the way as fast as possible. There are also generic uncertainties. For example, the Divertimento is not necessarily a work for large orchestra. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was written for a special ensemble, and that is not even mentioning Three Village Scenes (A Falun) which for me is ultimately a chamber music work. So when I record something, I never think of a “complete series.” I merely concentrate on being as perfect as possibilities allows. But to answer your original question, I think we ought to continue with the stage works. For example, with the Miraculous Mandarin which can be performed in a number of forms. A talented young musician, Géza M. Tóth, has made a very interesting adaptation in the form of an animated film. There is also a superb performance for marionettes (perhaps we can perform it live for such a performance) and naturally, there is the stage version.
Is the Bartók estate still being difficult in all these matters? Are the various rights in order?
Luckily, we enjoy a great relationship with the Hungarian representative, Gábor Vásárhelyi. The relationship with Péter Bartók is harder to maintain because he lives in America and does not always see exactly the essential elements of various Hungarian initiatives. To my knowledge, the copyright issues are resolved for these adaptations.
According to the plans, you and the orchestra will move into your new headquarters in the Palace of Arts, next to the National Theatre. Will you perform more regularly in Budapest after this? And do you think audiences will grow accustomed to travelling out there?
That is certainly a serious question, since you don't just make a new venue part of the current currency from one day to the next. Although it does lie some way from the city centre, you can reach it reasonably well by public transport. It is actually somewhat easier to park there than near the Music Academy. The sooner the infrastructure is developed, the easier it will be for people to love the building, but of course, attractive programmes are the best way to draw people in. What is important for us is that at long last, the orchestra will have its own home and a decent rehearsal room, plus the problem of housing the choir will be solved. The acoustics of the concert hall promise to be superb. We will be having our first experimental performance on January 8th, and for this reason, I have selected a Mozart program because everything can be measured by listening to performances of his works.
The National Philharmonic Orchestra will officially open the Palace of Arts on March 14th. There had been speculation earlier that you might give a joint concert with the Festival Orchestra. Why didn't anything come of this?
The Hungarian government asked us, as the country's principal national orchestra, to officially open the palace. And we agreed to undertake this. I don't understand why we always have to bring the spirit of competition into this.
But many felt that this would be a sign of reconciliation, that it might help resolve the longstanding tensions between the two orchestra, which as we know, has boiled over from time to time with public statements from both sides.
Personally, I think the Festival Orchestra should offer the olive branch to me. I am the one who has reconciled. Of course, they took some shrinking steps as well, but really, we need to pour clean water into the glass. We ought to clarify what happened over the past ten years, and why this situation evolved. But I feel that it is not my turn to make a move. I have proven than I am capable of building an orchestra. True, the conditions are different: I had to found the Festival Orchestra from scratch, whereas in the State Concert Orchestra, I inherited a structure that was weighed down with terrible traditions and ways of behaviour, a petit-bourgeois mentality and ultra-conservative views. And yet I have fashioned a Euro-conform ensemble from them, which can play just about anything. It can't just perform bombastic works for large orchestra (Mahler, Strauss), but even twentieth century music. So I have proven what I can do. So if the Festival Orchestra has something important to say, they should contact me.
They say they have
Not directly they haven't. They usually go to the cultural ministry, or make comments in the Hungarian press, sometimes the foreign press. But this is only interesting this side of the Austrian border. On the other side, no one discusses whether one orchestra is better than the other. Rather, they note just how good Hungarian musicians are. I am happy for their successes because it reinforces our own. It is another matter when they issue statements from time to time which are not entirely truthful, or when they give an explanation of things to Western journalists which the leaders of the Festival Orchestra would like to read. But let's forget about this and concentrate on what really matters: making music.
Béla Szilárd Jávorszky
(Népszabadság, November 27, 2004)