It all started when Zoltán Kocsis began to conduct and we, the wise audience, said: no problem. Eventually, this mania strikes down everyone: it is not enough to have a voice or play an instrument superbly, they all eventually want to wave a stick in front of an orchestra. The conductor as emperor of musical life is a relic of former times. Barenboim conducts, so do Ashkenazy, Domingo, and recently, even Itzhak Perlman, who directed a record of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. We owe them this much, not only because we have marvelled at their playing so many times, but because we believe in their musicality. We don't marvel at their agile fingers or beautiful voices, but at their ability to express music, their knowledge, their formal sense, their understanding of how to communicate through sound.
Then we saw that with Zoltán Kocsis, things were becoming serious. Initially, we noticed that his conducting is not actually a thing of visual beauty, but is useful, and sufficient for musicians. And the music we heard was increasingly exciting. Then came the great development, as it seemed at the time, when in a daring move (the background to which we know virtually nothing) Kocsis was appointed the music director of the National Philharmonic Orchestra. After Kobayashi, who was loved by the public and was a very spectacular conductor, here was an individual who was still not accepted as a conductor by the wider audience, and because of this, those affected immediately began to attack him. We have now left this period well behind, because the National Philharmonic Orchestra in a very short span of time, has demonstrated an almost unbelievable transformation, of a degree and to a standard that defy simple explanations along the lines of “it is easy considering how much money they were given.” Because it just not a question of money. But secretly, we still keep asking “won't this ultimately lead to problems?” It is worthwhile sacrificing so much energy on the orchestra, when the piano is still standing in the corner? Haven't we lost too much? Let's allow Kocsis sufficient time to practise, since in the end he is a conducting pianist and not a piano playing conductor.
With others, the dam may have already burst. But for me, it happened on Wednesday night at the Music Academy. It became my conviction that the work which Zoltán Kocsis has put in as conductor of the National Philharmonic is at the very least equal to his work as a concert pianist. I can almost hear my readers saying “well, that's an exaggeration”, but for me at least, this concert was convincing enough proof. However, the program was not originally designed with this in mind, Kocsis not only conducted but also played the piano: the Beethoven G major concerto, sitting behind the keyboard. The program had the discrete charm that it was this composition that essentially set Zoltán Kocsis on his way as a musician, when his interpretation at the age of 18 won him the Hungarian Radio's International Beethoven Competition, and formed part of his very first recording (long since withdrawn). After the St Stephen's Overture, performed to warm up the orchestra, we quickly learnt two things. Both were excessively obvious: the first is how much Kocsis's conception of this work has changed after thirty years, the other is that Kocsis remains at his most communicative when he is beside his instrument.
The whole situation was, of course, much more complicated, partly because the outer movements of the Beethoven work were technically far from being unblemished. At the same time, the whole composition sounded so enervated, brilliant and novel, I almost want to say it sounded 21st century, that you almost begin to believe in a strange idealistic set of values, which we can call the sense of classical music or the calling of the musician, or the immortality of Beethoven.
But between the two exalted fast movements came the most traditionally performed slow movement, the imploring piano solo above the austere violins, Orpheus in the underworld. This too warms the heart knowing there were no inhibitions, that you don't have to always say something new, you don't need something better than what is already fine, that performing traditions are not necessarily to be rejected.
In such moments, you find yourself deciding whether to stay for the second half. Not because it was bad but precisely because the concert was so good, and perhaps would not remain at this level. After all, you have just heard Kocsis playing the piano – that was the main attraction. An overture and a piano concerto gives us sufficient food for thought. Why should we go on to hear Mozart, the Masonic Funeral Music, which I believe was placed in the program not in its own right but in homage to Otto Klemperer who lends his name to this subscription series. Afterwards Mozart's E flat major symphony was programmed, one of the greatest of the great Mozart symphonies. Did we need this? It was so good to think of the Beethoven and noting that it says something new. And to observe that the much deprecated St Stephen's Overture takes us far: that the subsidiary theme becomes the Ode to Joy, while the principal theme is later the title song of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Fortunately I stayed. After the Beethoven pieces, the E flat major symphony offered a quite different experience, as listeners sense they are not hearing an interpretation but the work itself. Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, because we couldn't help noticing just how good the strings are, especially the violins which play so well together, and perceiving that the orchestra has finally found what appears to be firm foundations. But really this is all secondary considering here was Mozart: four movements played with balance, clarity, precision, modernity and yet fitting traditions, with a rounded modern symphonic sonority, and timpanies struck with wooden sticks. And with the difference that from now on, we must never, and I really mean never, waste time wondering whether Zoltán Kocsis is a good conductor.
(Népszabadság, October 17th 2002.)