After several changes of repertoire since the initial announcement (at one point two different all-Hungarian programs were advertised), Sunday night's concert with conductor and pianist Zoltán Kocsis and the Hungarian National Philharmonic featured an enjoyable and half-Hungarian program of music by Bartók, Liszt, and Dvorák It also gave the Bay Area a rare chance to hear an orchestra with a really distinctive sound. Those expecting warmth and lushness may have been disappointed, for the overall emphasis was on leanness and clarity. Instead of the richer and more homogenized sound favored by most American orchestras, the Hungarians offered brilliance and transparency, with a wide variety of instrumental color. The woodwinds were remarkably pungent and expressive, the brass suitably virile, and the strings produced a taut and focused sound that allowed for a great deal of clarity and precision. This sonic concept must come in part from Mr. Kocsis, whose impressive piano playing also reflects some of these ideals.
The program began with Bartók's Dance Suite, a work which immediately showcased some marvelous playing from the woodwinds, most notably the bassoons and solo clarinet, who played their solos with an almost improvisatory feel while still being absolutely in rhythm. Throughout the work, Kocsis and the orchestra effectively captured the wry humor of the music as well as the more earthy and folk elements. Kocsis' rhythmic control was noteworthy, at the same time both flexible and tightly controlled. His taut yet expressive gestures captured the shifting and rhapsodic moods without ever sacrificing a sense of structure and direction. To hear a group of Hungarians play this music with such authority and naturalness was a rare treat.
Franz Liszt's Concerto in E-Flat Major gave Music Director Kocsis an opportunity to demonstrate his versatility as both a pianist and conductor. Some may have found it distracting to watch the pianist/conductor move quickly from the piano bench to standing and leading the orchestra, and indeed on occasion one wondered how he would make it back to the piano in time for his entrance (he always did). Personally, I found it rather remarkable.
An integrated performance
Liszt's concerto combines four “movements” into one continuous block of music, and in the wrong hands, the work can sound rhapsodic and aimless – as though it were Liszt who did not know what he was doing instead of the uninformed pianist. Kocsis offered a brisk and exciting interpretation stripped clean of Romantic excess, and I for one have rarely heard the work make so much sense. It was a pleasure to hear the opening section presented with such a tightly organized sense of structure. Gone was any bloated sense of rhetoric; what remained was an unusually cogent and intelligent conception. The beautiful slow section allowed Kocsis to display a wide range of expression and color-from the most ethereal to very powerful. The scherzo section has seldom sounded so light and brilliant, and the pianist's playing in the finale was electrifying in its precision and power. Occasionally, one wished Kocsis would relax his rigid control just a bit and offer a more sensual and Romantic interpretation, but his concept was both vital and valid, and had the audience on its feet at the conclusion.
After intermission, Kocsis resumed his position on the podium and led the orchestra in a lovely rendition of Dvorák's rarely-performed Symphony #3 in E-Flat Major op. 10. Written in 1873 and premiered the following year with Bedrich Smetana as the conductor, it is the only one of Dvorák's symphonies to be cast in three instead of four movements (there is no Scherzo). The Third Symphony shows considerable influence of Wagner, while still being unmistakably by Dvorák. Here Kocsis managed to elicit a feeling of grandeur from the orchestra without ever sounding grandiose.
The expansive first movement unfolded with a simplicity and naturalness that was most affecting. Again, Kocsis exhibited no desire to wallow in Romantic excess, preferring instead a nobility of phrasing and clarity of texture. The long second movement (although it did not seem so) is one of Dvorák's most melancholy slow movements, and Kocsis beautifully captured the elegiac and mournful nature of the music. The rousing finale again brought Kocsis' taut sense of rhythm to the fore – the pervasive dotted rhythm seemed to build and build without ever losing control. A brief and delightful encore, the Brahms Hungarian Dance #10, was played with irrepressible verve and brought the evening to a delightful conclusion. Afterwards, I couldn't help thinking that the concert reminded me a good glass of champagne – crisp, fresh, well-balanced, and with just enough sting to make it interesting.
(Pianist William Wellborn performs and lectures in the United States and Europe, and from 1995-97 was host of the program “Piano Legacy” on San Francisco station KDFC. Wellborn is on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory, where he teaches courses in piano, piano history, and opera.)William Wellborn