On February 10th, the National Philharmonic Orchestra staged its final concert at the Music Academy. The orchestra bade farewell to the country's most beautiful Art Nouveau building in the appropriate style with works from the turn of the 20th century. As befits Zoltán Kocsis's tastes, he chose French works (although how Richard Strauss's little known Burlesque for piano and orchestra in D minor was programmed is beyond me).
Zoltán Kocsis swept into the hall in his usual energy bomb mode, and immediately leapt into the thick of the action. The first work in the concert was a popular work by one of the most able (although none too prolific) composers from turn of the century Paris, Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice based on Goethe's ballad. The work faithfully follows with charming humour Goethe's tale of the apprentice magician who tries to work his own magic in the absence of the old master, and proves incapable of stopping the brooms which are carrying water to the bath. Tragedy is only prevented at the last minute when the master returns. The last words of the poem: “To the lonely / Corner, broom! / Hear your doom. / As a spirit / When he wills / your master only / Calls you / Then 'tis time to hear it.” – is much more than the usual pat lesson that concludes such tales: Goethe and in his wake, Dukas are questioning the difference between the instinctive and the conscious artist and the role of craftsman like knowledge in the arts. And Kocsis's interpretation was far more than the average performance of a favourite played at children's concerts, because this enchantingly orchestrated, sparklingly witty music was filled with metaphysics in his hands. I don't know how Kocsis achieved this: perhaps this performance was not quite so good natured as we are used to, the emphasis was not on the instrumental tricks which are so craftily worked out – and played virtually perfectly by this superb orchestra – but rather on the dramatic process. The return of the old magician at the end of the work was particularly beautiful, as Dukas and Kocsis tamed the chaos brought to life by the sorcerer's apprentice.
The second work in the concert was Richard Strauss's Burlesque in D minor for piano and orchestra, with its diabolically difficult piano solo, the compositional strategy of which can be described with the folk wisdom “let's clutch at everything and we'll catch a little.” The young Strauss wished to condense everything his world redeeming Teutonic spirit had learned about composition and piano technique into this work and, well, Strauss was not typically a composer to leave his plans unrealised half way, whatever the result. In this case, the result is a hybrid piano concerto, in the form of an inflated symphonic poem, full of exceptional ideas for orchestration, and music more Brahmsian than Brahms, more Wagnerian than Wagner. Of course, the composer had no need to feel ashamed, since Strauss could not really write bad music even when he was putting in his greatest efforts to do so.
The evening's soloist, Michel Dalberto, was suffering a serious attack of influenza, well shown by the kilometre long scarf wound around his neck at the main rehearsal, his fevered perspiring brow at the concert and his tortured look during the orchestral sections. But none of this could be seen or heard from his piano playing: Dalberto played with astounding virtuosity, seducing a hundred different colours from the piano and working sensitively with Zoltán Kocsis, although for me, his creation of different characters went to excess although possibly the young Strauss would have been delighted to hear such an extreme realisation of the piano solo. In Fauré's Ballada (op 19) for piano and orchestra, which followed after the interval, Dalberto showed himself more at home in demure French music. Dalberto actually looks like he wouldn't be out of place in a turn of the century Parisian café, rather than a Bavarian inn. Fauré's rarely performed work is wonderfully beautiful music, you have the feeling on occasion that it is too beautiful – no accident that Debussy referred to Fauré in connection with this work as the “charm master”. But Dalberto's gossamer playing would not allow that formulation which comes as part of the critic's basic kit – the “there is something bad in everything good” way of thinking – this performance completely blew me away. Dalberto gave a quite justified encore: Ravel's unplayably difficult Ondine which was such a perfect interpretation of this work that it proved definitively that Dalberto is not only a superb pianist but also a superb musician.
The chief work of the evening though was the work regarded as one of Debussy's primary works La Mer, conducted by Kocsis, and many of us, myself included, came to this concert specifically to hear it. And we weren't disappointed. That Kocsis is not only a great pianist but an important conductor is nowhere better shown than he is now able to realise everything with the orchestra which we have marvelled at in his Debussy piano playing. Firstly and in Debussy this is not to be neglected, even though it is not easy to realise, every instrumental part could be perfectly heard. And secondly, and this follows from the transparency of the orchestral material, it transpires that Debussy is not a post-romantic composer of dreamlike atmospheres, living in a world of wishy-washy soft contours, as the musical cliché would have us believe, but an artist using clear and powerful gestures, whose melodic shaping and formal solutions are characteristically 20th century. Heard contrasted with Dukas and Fauré, Debussy sounds astoundingly modern, and perhaps Kocsis wanted to show this when he compiled the programme. The orchestra sounded superb: I have never heard the dance motif on divided cellos in the middle of the first movement played with such character before, the brass choral at the end of the movement sounded astoundingly great and although there was split trumpet note at the start of the third movement, the sweep of the performance (particularly the surprisingly fast tempo of the closing movement) made such minor matters forgettable. This was a memorable concert, and a fitting farewell to the Music Academy.
(February 10, 2005, Music Academy; National Philharmonic Orchestra; conductor: Zoltán Kocsis, piano soloist: Michel Dalberto; Dukas: The Sourcerer's Apprentice; R. Strauss: Burleske (D minor); Fauré: Ballada (op. 19); Debussy: La Mer)
(Fidelio, February 19, 2005)