Those less informed, attending last Sunday's concert, could pick up a 128 page mini-book as they arrived at the Music Academy. It contained details of the programmes for all the National Philharmonic Orchestra's concerts this year, along with programme notes and biographies of the performers. In recent years, it has been a common complaint that concert organisers have neglected to give audiences sufficient information. Many still remember the blue pamphlets, published by the National Philharmonia, which summarised the programmes of all Budapest's serious music events every week or so. When concert organising was first privatised, such programme notes were among the first victims. The hall had to be hired; performer, taxes, contributions paid; and advertising and ticket distribution taken care of. And if they succeeded in tempting the listener, then the listener was expected to sit nice and quiet, listen to the music and not be curious about anything else. In recent years, particularly the large orchestras have begun to recognise that programme notes are not a kind of pseudo-intellectual froth, but an indication of their respect for the listener and an important element in the public education function of the concert. If I remember correctly, the Festival Orchestra was the first, and nowadays, the Budapest Philharmonic or the MATÁV Orchestra also give away free pamphlets to their audiences with information about the concert. By comparison, the National Philharmonic's thick free book is evidence of a joyous, if not prodigious generosity. I hope that in spite of my recommendations, supplies will last until May so that everyone can take one home as a memento.
Now we have the entire season's programme before our eyes, it is worth pondering it a while. We all recall the Kobayashi era, which last more than a decade: an era when the great romantic masterpieces were performed passionately, but frequently after lax preparation. Since Zoltán Kocsis has taken over the direction of the orchestra, there has been a changed in the profile of concert programmes. This is true of this season as well. Effectively, the National Philharmonic Orchestra is only following the example of the decades old habits of the great West European orchestras. They are endeavouring to widen their repertoire, to play far more contemporary music and also to unearth forgotten gems from musical history. We are soon promised Richard Strauss' Macbeth and Rachmaninov's First Symphony. In coming months, the orchestra will perform Schoenberg's Pelleás and Mélisande, Alban Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, and a symphonic poem by Roussel. By contrast, there will only be one symphony from each of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, who have been played to death in recent years. Budapest audiences are due for a refreshed repertoire, and I believe that many of them will accompany the orchestra on its journey of discovery.
Widening repertoire is not just important for the audience. We know that Zoltán Kocsis has undertaken, in exchange for raised sponsorship from public money to create a European standard orchestra that can hold its place (to use an term from finance) on the export market. It is thus important that musicians are not programmed to perform works habituated by routine, but should learn new works week in week out, interpreting them with fresh eyes and increasingly practised sensitivity.
It has been an ancient fundamental wisdom that one of the touchstones of stylistic security and nuances in orchestral playing is the performance of the classical repertoire. An examination of this came in last Sunday's concert, which placed two classical symphonies around Chopin's F minor concerto. The two symphonies had much in common with each other: Haydn's 97th symphony was written around the same time as Mozart's Jupiter and both feature two trumpets and tympani, the largest possible symphonic orchestra at the end of the 18th century. At the same time, Kocsis only employed the smallest apparatus for this large orchestral performance: a string orchestra of twenty musicians, alongside paired woodwind. This diaphanously small ensemble opened the way for an airy, flexible performance of the work, bringing it close to chamber music, just as we have come to expect from early music ensembles is recent years.
This also has a role in training an orchestra, because in smaller ensembles the individual musician is given much greater responsibility. If only six violins play each part, then there is no accumulated sonority that will helpfully cover up for slips in individual intonation, and wavering in the ensemble's playing. In this respect I think we can obtain a franker more realistic picture of the orchestra's technical abilities than in the great Romantic symphonies. This is a double edge sword: even after the strict auditions of last year, they cannot be said to be toweringly secure. In certain delicate places, for example in the figures of the Haydn symphony's variation slow movement that make an almost soloistic demand, one could hear fingers sliding towards the correct note, which is something that an orchestra aspiring to international standards can hardly allow itself. On the other hand, the sensitivity towards sonority has perceptibly grown, and I would even go so far as to say that finally, there is a demand for a sculptured individual string sound. This is less the warm Viennese sound formerly idealised in Budapest, but the more objective but nonetheless personal sound of the Berlin Philharmonic or the Councertgebouw.
With the woodwind instruments the situation is almost reversed. Here the individual accomplishments are of a very high standard – pride of place being Sándor Tamás' beautiful bassoon playing – but it is the ensemble playing, the timbres and balance of proportions that left occasion things to be desired.
I mentioned the possibility for a diaphanous, airy sonority in connection to a small ensemble, but I found that Kocsis's concept of the classics tends rather toward large-scale forms, where energy, momentum and accentuation receive the focus. He truly bathed in the powerful shaping of the tuttis, in the rhythmic tensions of the finales, in the robustness of the minuets and the sharp accentuation of the trios' characters, In the sculpting of phrases, Kocsis frequently gives his musicians a freehand according to their taste, but then at important intersections, again takes control himself. While he efficiently built up the rhythmic and dynamic jokes of the Haydn symphony with great attention, in other places, he devoted less care to the interpretation of details in the musical texture.
The evening's guest artist, Ingrid Fliter, is from Argentina. This 28 year old lady entered Europe's musical life with the support of her great compatriot Martha Argerich, about a decade ago. Argerich is one of her mentors perhaps: her masculine determination of her keyboard work, dispensing with gentility, points to this. However, at the moment at least, her playing does not show Argerich's inspiration, and fascinating extreme interpretative imagination. In Chopin's youthful concerto in F minor, Fliter played the virtuosic elements in the context of the conventional style of the era, and only in places – for example the closing section of the slow movement – enraptured with the sensitivity of her transparent sound. All the same time, I found it inadequate that she creates her pianos not from the subtle movement of her fingers but with the routine use of the soft pedal – as if she was creating individual flavours by mixing them from a packet of instant sauce. That her convincing technical knowledge can indeed be refined to a high level interpretation was undoubtedly proven when, as an encore, she played one of her compatriot Alberto Ginastera's Argentinean dances, to which she gave a tremendous performance
Hungarian Radio, Új Zenei Újság (New Music Magazine), 2001. November 17th 2001.