I think it was about ten years ago when I guided one of my foreign friends around Budapest: Heroes' Square, Váci utca, the Castle District. At the end of the day we went to a concert at the Music Academy. It was a magical evening.
Luckily, the ÁHZ (Hungarian Concert Orchestra, predecessor of the National Philharmonic Orchestra), was having one of its good days. Kobayashi conducted superbly and the public was ecstatic. My friend was irritated by the rhythmic clapping but otherwise very enthusiastic. Next day, he suggested we go to a record shop: he would like to buy some recordings by this superb orchestra and conductor. We went for a walk downtown. And this is where we had a rude awakening. “ÁHZ? Kobayashi? I'm sorry …” said the sales assistant with open arms. I saved the situation. “They have all sold out”, I lied, as you have to in these circumstances. “I'll buy you one later and send it to you.” Needless to say my friend is still waiting for the postman. There is no way to prettify the facts: for many years, there has been no representative CD released on the market featuring this orchestra. We don't need to make the point at length; such an ensemble really cannot allow such an omission if it wants to establish itself as a rival to the world's leading orchestras.
Since Zoltán Kocsis has directed the ÁHZ, or to give it its new name, the National Philharmonic Orchestra, there has been a fundamental change in this respect. A number of CDs have been released, each one better than the last. The latest Bartók CD puts the reviewer in a tricky situation. Bartók once said that critical praise gave him far more amusement than that scorning him, that the former type of critic commits far more nonsense to paper than the latter. What can I do? I must undertake this thankless task in the hope that some of my assertions may at least amuse Bartók, watching down on us “from above”.
This CD features Concerto, Dance Suite and nine of the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, these latter in the later orchestrated version. I feel I am not exaggerating when I say that at the present moment, these are the best and most perfect renderings of these works to have been committed to CD. I'll attempt to briefly summarise why. Perhaps the most important aspect is what we can call their transparency. Every instrumental line can be heard, as if a beam was penetrating the tissues of the work. We get the feeling of standing on an alpine peak in blazing sunshine. We can discover minor details which usually pass unnoticed. In a polyphonic section of the first movement of Concerto, for example, we find ourselves marvelling at the augmented version of the theme. The repeated notes on flute in the introduction sparkle like pearls. We can count them – usually it sounds more like a kind of “vibration”. This kind of crystalline clarity is familiar from Boulez's recordings. But with Boulez, it is often paired with a sterility and coldness. By contrast Kocsis and his orchestra do not get lost in the details. The overall picture is generously presented. I don't know if there was any subsequent technical retouching and cutting of this recording, and if so, how much and where. There probably was – these day it is virtually unavoidable. But the music sounds as if it was a single uninterrupted process. The details perfectly dovetail into one another. After the restrained introduction, the principal theme explodes like a blinding truth. Tympani beats more powerful than we are accustomed to add additional momentum. The towering music of the brass sounds fantastic: fresh and crisp. The ever hurtling lower strings prepare the final cadences astonishingly. The small drum of the second movement is finally audible. The instrumental “pairs” truly are playful, almost frolicsome, the chorale is gorgeous sounding, like a soft chorus. The Hungarian rubato of the Elégia is restrained. Non-Hungarian performers tend to play this either stiffly, or the opposite: they exaggerate it. The Hungarians are inclined to this kind of mawkish lamentation. Kocsis precisely locates its degree, its folksong diction. Let's not forget: folksongs are never sentimental. Bartók himself noted this quality and hugely respected it. In the Interrupted Intermezzo. the melody “You are wonderful, gorgeous Hungary” seems to sound from afar, from a distance that prettifies memory. The crude music of the “jackbooted people” is not repulsive because it is thick and chaotic. What is frightening about this oppressive foreign army is that it operates with machine-like perfection. The dashing of the Finale is controlled. Paradoxically, the effect is to make it seem faster than we are used to.
Dance Suite is probably the most delicate score Bartók ever wrote. It does not surrender itself easily. We know that at the premiere, Dohnányi couldn't cope with it; the premiere performance on November 19th 1923 totally embittered Bartók. A little later, a more successful performance in Prague dispelled his doubts. This time, we hear everything. The bassoon is miraculous. The piano adds astounding energy to the sonority. The recurring Hungarian melody talks of a Fairy World. There's no need to beat about the bush: Dance Suite is about Trianon. A circle dance of happy peoples, about an imagined, fictitious dreamlike Greater Hungary giving a home to all good natured folk. Yet Bartók did not believe there was any room for breast beating Hungarian nationalism. And at the same time, it is a musical ideal of a Normal World, a Republic of the Earth because exotic melodies distant from Europe also belong to it. (Today sadly, it seems that the Normal World is further away than ever.)
Finally the Peasant Songs. These tiny movements can only be sensitively conducted by someone who as a pianist knows their most intimate secrets; who knows the texts of the folksongs Bartók sets; someone who knows all the folk music that Bartók collected, classified and notated.
I have no illusions. I am not in the least certain that this CD will win a Grand Prix at the next recording celebration. These kinds of award ceremonies are overly shot through with business, political and tactical considerations. I will only say that the CD truly deserves a Grand Prix.
(Muzsika, June 2004)