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So there you have it – Concert by Zoltán Kocsis and the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra

2006. 03. 14.

It is thought provoking: many ask why. So what happens when an instrumental artist gives up his original instrument (be it piano, violin, flute, or anything that generally demands daily practice) and starts conducting.

One thing is for sure, this artist is liberated from the daily grind of practise, and while the concert also involves tremendous concentration, there is also perhaps less individual responsibility. He can doze off in the slow movement during the beautiful playing of the violins and forget the entrance of the cellos. But if he has a good orchestra and a fine cello section, they will make their entrance as agreed in the rehearsal and the conductor can smile at length at his forgetfulness.

Of course, building up an orchestra means no less work than any amount of daily practise, with the bonus that pianists have not yet formed trade unions. But it is also true that there are few pianists who entirely abandon their instruments when they begin conducting. And a truly unique constellation of stars can come about if they cultivate both their passions and at a concert perform a work like Mozart's Piano Concerto in G major. Originally this did not require a separate conductor and soloist – Mozart himself assumed both roles- and if the orchestra is the same one that we heard performing Haydn's Bear Symphony with the conductor (despite one error) then the idea of conducting from the piano can be undertaken boldly.

The performance demanded a smaller apparatus than customary – the two violin sections of 8 violinists a piece for the Haydn was reduced to 6 each for the Mozart. The piano was positioned with the keyboard facing the audience, so we only saw the pianist's back. And from then on, what happened can hardly be described using the usual vocabulary of music criticism. There were certain aspects of this performance which would require an entire wide-ranging essay and only after repeated listening to the recording with the score in hand.

We have already said about Kocsis's concert from January last year, what he knows all about Mozart and can also say much in the sonatas about him. Naturally, his knowledge was also on display in the piano concerto but that he could simultaneously realise it with the orchestra as well, showing not higher quality (the Mozarteum universe does not allow it) but a similar unity “in its complexity”, well, that's a rarer thing altogether. We have observed the care with which Kocsis accompanies pianists with his orchestra, taking trouble not to overrun them. He now contrived to make sure the piano did not overwhelm the reduced orchestra.

But he didn't contrive. He just wanted to show the work as a chamber work where piano and orchestra, and all its sections, are equal partners and all equally important in the entire process. He also succeeded in creating such subtle mixtures of shaded sonorities in which both orchestral tutti and solo, as well as piano solo in forte or piano, precisely related to one another, constructing the entirety of the work step by step. The shaded subtleties of the dynamics contributed to this; a piano was not just heard more quietly, but it possessed a different sound colour as well. It is hard to bestow an adjective on the sonority of the combined woodwind of flutes, oboes and bassoons which we heard in one of the tuttis of the slow movement: all I can say is that we only hear something like that one or twice in our entire lives.

But there were other subtleties as well. Only a conductor-pianist can accurately signal to the orchestra with a raised hand from the keyboard – with stunning accuracy – and at the same moment, release the pedal, so the sound of orchestra and piano dies away not just at once but in the same rhythm. The other great experience at the concert was the illumination of rhythmic power. One of the greatest driving forces of the Haydn symphony was that throughout, it was held in a taut rhythm, which does not simply mean a tenser tempo but that one of the most important creative elements of music was put in its place as precisely as possible. Many times, when we cannot express why we feel a performance is slightly less effective when superficially everything is in its place, is because the rhythm is not unremittingly being put in its in its proper place.

The entries came with remarkable precision, such transitions from forte to piano are not easy to achieve with an orchestra without an audible caesura. And we could further analyse the interpretation of the G major piano concerto. Besides playing the notes as an emotional reality, it was in itself an essay in music how to transform a Mozart piano concerto from the ideal to an acoustic entity.

But let's say a few words about the other works played this evening. We heard Mozart's D major flute concerto played on János Bálint's golden flute. The artist, who is also the orchestra's principal flautist, and had already warmed up in the piano concerto, but he is naturally a true soloist, with a gorgeous sound, and played the solo shaping the melody beautifully (although in the top register, it is not possible to quite substitute a wooden flute – sadly this will always be a disadvantage of metal instruments.) The way he performed the slow movement cadenza was particularly beautiful – characteristically two people now decided to cough and made no attempt to restrain themselves.

I've already mentioned the attention to detail paid to the rhythm of the Haydn symphony, but naturally I could also mention the melodic shaping, the characterisation of the second movement variations, or the raising of dynamic alternations with the changes of sound colour into a shaping power. The four cellos and two double basses powerfully “growled” in the final movement with its bagpipe imitation.

Again, a symphony finished off the concert: Mozart's Symphony in D major, the “Paris” symphony, and it displayed all the virtues discussed above. The encore was naturally in the spirit of Kocsis's work as a musical educator: the alternative slow movement to the symphony which Mozart composed because the Parisian impresario felt the original to be over written.

March 10, 2006 – National Concert Hall
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra
János Bálint – flute
Conductor and pianist: Zoltán Kocsis
HAYDN: Symphony no. 82 in C major (Bear)
MOZART: Piano Concerto in G major, K.453
Flute Concerto in D major, K.314
Symphony in D major (“The Paris”), K.297

Péter Varga
(Café Momus, March 14, 2006)

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