Zoltán Kocsis on instruments, orchestras, conducting and other things
We owe the honorary title to this interview to the charter presented to Liszt awarding him the title of freeman of Sopron. In this following interview, we have attempted to circumscribe Zoltán Kocsis using it.(…)
Let us try to measure just who is Zoltán Kocsis. We first knew you as a pianist. There was a time when you undertook a role public issues, particularly artistic ones. You composed and made transcriptions for piano. Now you conduct and lead an orchestra. Let us first look at the piano: today, just how serious a part is it of your life?
– Today's orchestral rehearsal underlined totally that it possesses an importance that will never end. We were rehearsing the accompaniment to Bartók's 2nd Piano Concerto and I could only explain certain things to the orchestra truly well, by heading for the piano and playing it. The piano is very important physiologically – I feel simply ill, I sense first a physical and then a spiritual numbness if I don't exercise my fingers everyday. Instrumental playing, particularly its musical aspect is absolutely necessary, because anyone with a living relationship with notes will see things differently from the conductor's podium. I feel I can say a great many things from the podium, but I would not give up my daily practise for a moment. I have been the Music Director here for four years, but I can say in all honesty that I have definitely practised 350 days per year.
– You can hear yourself play, but when will we?
– I play enough, concertos, chamber music. You mean why do I not give solo recitals at the Music Academy? I could do it anytime, but what I can say in a solo recital, which for me is actually a boring genre, in my judgement, is far less than I can achieve in productions such as those with the National Philharmonic in the past six months. Many don't judge it like this, those who for whatever reason, have many preconceptions, or do not know about my activities with the orchestral. In any case, since I was a small child, I studied to be a musician, not a pianist. I devoted myself to the piano, because in the end, it is the best instrument (Pablo Casals said this!). What is more, because – although this sounds ugly – you can earn the most money playing the piano, and it guarantees the widest perspectives, it has the most serious repertoire.
-So you devoted yourself to the piano with all this in mind?
– No, I began playing the piano because we had one at home. But ever since childhood I had a great interest in polyphony, harmony and sonorities. When I was ten, I learned Beethoven's symphonies by heart because I was interested how they would sound when I performed them myself. I remember, for example, I was very disturbed how ugly the woodwind sounded besides the strings, and of course I did not understand why. I tried to imitate these sonorities on the piano, with various degrees of success, because it immediately became apparent to my teachers, in the negative sense of course, that I was playing orchestrally. If I could phrase it, I would describe this as an ars poetica, that I will never be just a pianist. In my playing, there was always orchestral colours, and other perspectives.
– Do you make CD recordings these days?
– Now I don't feel the necessity. I finished the Bartók series – I must stress that I didn't want to make this comprehensive survey, but Philips forced me to – although I'm now glad they did. It took ten years, which was very good, because I had time to get deep into the compositions.
– Do you still teach?
– No and I don't miss it either, because I am teaching the orchestra.
– This requires time too. Orchestral transcriptions compensate a little. And then when someone comes up with a new work, they easily get critically buried, particularly by those who feel that this person has strayed onto their territory. When a number of us began playing Bach with a revolutionary new sonority, following on from the example of Glen Gould, I was criticised for my methods, or when I began conducting, or writing piano transcriptions, then I got mauled!
– Do you still write transcriptions?
– This has been replaced by orchestration, but these help each other, and vice versa. So, hearing how some orchestral movements sound on the piano can be a help
-In your opinion, what are the three most important things in conducting?
– One is musikalische Leitung, which of course means something different in each case. For example, that someone knows perfectly what he is performing, including the conductorial experiences connected to the work. I am currently rehearsing Bartók's Music. I conduct the third movement in fours. This is a very slow night music, so the four pulses tend to be divided [by other conductors] into eighths, which in certain senses kills the work, that this slow extension of the diction of the Hungarian language dies. So I remained in fours, and if the orchestra is forced to make this the basic tone, then the greater my chance for a good result with less movement than perhaps by using more necessary movements on the surface which in the end goes against the character of the music. The second most important thing is that you should never allow direction to slip out of your hands. The third is to know when to trust your musicians, when to leave them to make music…
– Furtwängler also said that a conductor must resolve a great contradiction: taut opposition between mechanical-rhythmic precision and the freedom of song..
– In works that abound with changes of metre, naturally it is not possible to operate without conductorial work in the classical sense. But in solos or in certain conjunctions of strings, where imposing the metre would obstruct the spread of the string sound, it would be a sin not to allow the musicians to make music on their own.
– The craft of conducting can be learned, but how a conductor precisely achieves this effect is something which has not really been discovered. Furtwängler wrote that we continue to stand puzzled before the true drama of conducting”.
– Furtwängler embodies for me what we call the conductor myth. He knew perfectly what he wanted, and just looked for the system of meaning, he searched for that metaphysical plane where he could best communicate. For sure, some kind of emanation of his personality played a role in his conducting. I don't know why when conductor X appears, the air stands still, while when conductor Y appears, it does not. But what I feel is far more important: he whose every manifestation is directed to music and truly to music, will sooner or later achieve the result. This is true of two such utterly different conductors as Furtwängler and Toscanini. We can define the secrets but the greatest secrets ultimately remain as secrets. In my practical experience as a conductor, it has happened many times that I was forced to say to the orchestra, look folks, I don't know what I'm doing, but watch and everyone should try and get what they want from it.
– How do you prepare a work. What do you study, what do you immerse yourself in?
– You have to lay hands on each work on an individual basis. Clearly you approach Beethoven's 5th symphony differently than Tchaikovsky's Manfred. It is important for me that the orchestra's spontaneity remains and can resurface again. Musicians can approach an early Schubert symphony, a lesser known Richard Strauss symphonic poem or a piece from Debussy's juvenilia with much greater freedom and creativity than established masterpieces which come burdened by traditions. Perhaps they can learn more from them. It was very useful when we were performing Debussy's La Mer that we had already played a number of rarely heard Debussy pieces.
– Staying with Furtwängler: “primarily it is the duty of the conductor to determine the tempo.' Recently Harnoncourt visited Budapest, and answering a similar question, he said that he was guided to the appropriate tempo by the dances and their original function and character.
– Dances are naturally very important because on the one hand they express the man and the time, and on the other, they are truly of a musical nature. Perhaps even more can be deduced from the most simple of human movements, that of walking on two legs. It is a shame that I was not present at that conversation, because I would have asked why Mozart's minuets are not ancient minuets, to which you could authentically dance, and why a stylised minuet is faster and has nothing to do with the minuet at all? After the Romantic era, composers returned to the minuet archaically, for example, one of Debussy's songs is one such. If a composer writes andante, and then piu andante, and this cannot be fitted somehow into the human act of walking on two legs, then the tempo is wrong. Therefore there is the great insistence on the metronome, for which Bartók was the apostle, and indeed, during rehearsals of Bartók's works, is has transpired on every occasion that he was right. Sometimes, misunderstandings can derive from Italian tempo descriptions, so that a two digit metronome marking says a hundred times more about differences in tempos. Beethoven became entirely disenchanted with the metronome and began writing kilometre long tempo instructions in Italian and German, although occasionally it would have been enough just to have written 92. Mahler in his 3rd symphony writes “in old march tempo.” Those who have experience the final tremors of the Dual Monarchy can perhaps sense something, but not for much longer.
– The profession of conductor is a modern invention, and since it has existed in today's sense, the conductor has been the embodiment of power in music making.
– What do you mean by power? That's an expression of doubtful value. I belief that someone who knows what he wants already possesses a certain power. I feel with my own reserves I am somehow like Piatogorsky, who when he was in Berlin with no job at all but still with his cello on his back, felt as though he was in possession of a signed blank cheque. That is power.
– The conductor is the possessor of a certain power, but also, the “powers that be” hold him to account.
– If you dare to think it through, the “powers that be” have a far greater need of him than he has for the current political power, so he is in a winning position. You do not have to quarrel with power, you do not have to make the power know that you have done them a favour, but from time to time, if it doesn't work, you have to communicate that eternal culture is a much stronger culture than theirs is. I believe that I am a confronter of prevailing powers, because I am the type that looks for faults and corrects them. A type that points to mistakes and at the same time, points out the virtues with satisfaction. I have been on the receiving end – and still am – from a great many people that I am a hireling [of a particular political party], principally from those who have not truly understood the situation. I don't listen to the radio, I don't watch television, because I get so disgusted by the bad spirit that can be sensed on every side – one side does something and the other immediately reacts to prove it was wrong. Now, on March 28th [two weeks before the general election] I must tell you I am not affiliated to this government, or to Fidesz [the Young Democrat's Party, who were then in power but lost the election]. At the same time, it was good that the orchestra received their support. I can't say anything about what is happening at the Opera, because I don't know what goes on there. But I can say with dead certainty that here, we used the money wisely. We have been criticised by the right-wing saying it was a cultural sin that we received so much money. Let me say this: the standard of concerts has in improved in greater percentage terms than the percentage increase in money received. I have never been a member of any party, and I do not sympathise with any one party in particular. However I can sympathise with good programmes, or good parts of programs, with good human thoughts.
– Let us turn to the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Has everyone survived the storms caused by the internal reorganisation?
– There are still lawsuits, and some fluctuations and we are still hiring new members, and we still have test rehearsals. But these have returned to a normal level. I can imagine that it is still in the interests of certain groupings to disturb the peace. I hope that in the orchestra, everyone is sufficiently wise to be able to resist them..
– What proportion of the orchestra was changed?
– I am still pleased to see the old “good” members, and in relatively large percentage terms.
– What is the duty of the orchestra. The National Philharmonic was formerly the Hungarian State Concert Orchestra – both names imply a wide-ranging, leading role.
– We are striving less for this. In Hungary, this is THE all round orchestra, which because of its size and its stylistic knowledge is suitable for playing everything. And we really do play everything, from Bach to Takemitsu, from Mozart to Emil Petrovics. We have given far more world and Hungarian premieres in the last four years than happened in the previous decade. Although we are often accused of not playing enough Hungarian music – but with the exception of Liszt, until the 20th century, there were no Hungarian composers truly on the world level. I would much rather conduct the less important works by great men than the better works of less important composer. I believe Eötvös's Atlantis, for example, to be a better work – and by many degrees – than the average (…)
– You are a fortunate conductor because you could work with two important orchestras, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the National Philharmonic. How do you characterise the two ensembles?
– The Festival Orchestra is a wonderful ensemble. It has a great string section. In its glory days, let us say from 1987 to 1995, there was no other orchestra that could make music so easily. It was truly unique, it sounded fantastic, and the degree of individual spontaneity was unbelievable. It was not weighted down by tradition as we are. The Festival Orchestra had its golden era and has robustly held on to its position. We only rebuilt the orchestra two years ago, and in this sense, the sonority has not developed to this degree. By the same token, the relationship to the fundamental elements of music rest much more on a single base. There exists a tradition – perhaps best associated with Ferencsik – which was basically the Central European continuation of the Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Klemperer tradition. Our orchestra is burdened by this tradition, but at the same time, we can draw on it. We are a larger orchestra than the Festival Orchestra: to an outsider, the Festival Orchestra is a Haydn-Mozart-Schubert orchestra that is capable of playing everything. As for the stylistic approach, our orchestra plays Mahler more often, and this stamps its impression on its style. I will add in parentheses that I am planning a grand scale Mahler cycle for the future, the first stage of which will be a thorough exploration of the First Symphony and all its predecessors.
– What is the difference between the approaches of the Music Directors??
– The musical differences were apparent even in 1983 but we could work marvellously together. The differences can only be decided on a musical level, because if I tried to explain what it is that I do more one way than Iván does another, I would do so in vain. It can only be sensed when you sit down and listen to a performance. Perhaps we start something with identical tempos, and still end up somewhere very different. By the same token, we come from the same branch, our basic musical training is the same. It is certain that Iván Fischer's individuality impresses itself on his orchestra and I hope that increasing numbers will realise that mine is doing the same on our orchestra (…)Judit Klára Rácz