The concert of the National Philharmonic on April 29 radiated power, strength, discipline and remarkable musicianship from the orchestra, its conductor Zoltán Kocsis and the viola soloist Kim Kashkashian. The amassed forces on the stage of the Academy of Music played ear-splittingly loudly when called upon, but also followed every subtle nuance of the director, who is second to none when it comes to the music of his countryman, Bartók.
It got off to a blustery start with Dohnányi's unfamiliar Celebration Overture, written in 1923 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Budapest becoming one city. The overture was mainly hubris, and sounded like Richard Strauss on speed: Hyperactive, overwritten, self-congratulatory and just a touch nationalistic with its quotation of the Hungarian National Anthem. This is a piece that should have remained buried with the Horthy era as far as I'm concerned, especially as the nationalistic specter of that time has been haunting Hungary in recent months. The brilliant performance, however, was faultless.
Bartók's Viola Concerto received a taut and relentlessly intense interpretation from Kim Kashkashian. It is no wonder that she has established herself as one of the world's leading violists. Her Nicolo Bergonzi instrument blasted through the orchestra like a cannon and her huge, rich sound and vigorous, commanding style electrified the audience. In Kashkashian's hands the concerto – melancholy and limp in many another soloists' interpretations – was perma-tension. This was no sad swan song of a dying composer. Rather, it was the agony of the composer's painful demise countered by a furious final grasping at life.
Kocsis pulled out all the stops for Bartók's ballet music The Wooden Prince. In this he really let the orchestra loose, with deafening effect.
Expressionistic suffering often dominated, as the orchestra – with the help of an electronic message board in the choir stalls which broadcast Balázs's text – told the story of the prince's desperate and frustrated love for a princess, while she was infatuated only with the prince's mocking double, a wooden prince doll come to life.
There was also grotesque humor for the wooden prince's gimpy dance and ravishing glory in the apotheosis. The clarinet solos by Zsolt Szatmári and violin solos by concertmaster Barnabás Kelemen were outstanding. The National Philharmonic left no doubt that Bartók is home turf for them.
(The Budapest Sun, May 10th 2002)