Over the last fortnight, I attended two highly successful concerts by the National Philharmonic Orchestra at the Palace of Arts: Zoltán Kocsis conducted four Bartók pieces, while Zoltán Peskó conducted Mahler's Seventh Symphony. Both evenings were unique events: Bartók's Wooden Prince was brought to life with marionettes, while Mahler's symphony was a real treat.
The first two pieces of the September 23rd Bartók concert were the Transylvanian and Romanian dances. When Bartók wrote the Transylvanian dances (which is the Sonatina transcribed for orchestra) he was under the spell of folk songs. We can discern the elemental rhythm of folk music and the tone of folk songs in many of his works. This three movement composition was performed at the concert tastefully, with superb characters and rhythms that only Hungarian performers can locate. The same can be said of their performance of the Romanian Dances as well.
The last work before the interval was the Scherzo, written when Bartók was still young. In it, we can clearly witness Bartók searching for his own voice in this work and yet his unique style so characteristic of later works is already present. In places, we seem to recognise flashes of Liszt, Debussy (who was so admired by Kodály), Dukas and Richard Strauss (one of Bartók's great mentors.) I should mention first of all the sensitive interplay between the orchestra and young pianist Bálint Zsoldos in the Scherzo which after the two dance pieces struck the audience with its relatively long span. I particularly liked the occasional non vibrato playing of the strings; the lower strings were so soft, often an ethereal bass, which just embraced the listener. These days we are overwhelmed by forced deep sounds from all directions. You can't step out onto the street without some exaggerated soul destroying thumping emerging from a car or an Discman. The brass and woodwind instruments sounded superb, the sweet, seductive sound of the cor anglais being especially prominent.
Zoltán Kocsis conducted all three works from memory, and he was able to mix the shades of colour superbly. He achieved such effects using sound colours the likes of which we have not heard on disc or in a concert for ages. Bálint Zsoldos performed the piano solo with balanced dynamics, and beautifully shaped phrasing. In places, his agogic stresses seemed excessive but the melodic line and presentation of musical character counterbalanced this.
After the interval, the audience could both see and hear Béla Bartók's work The Wooden Prince. Bartók described this work as a dance piece. In the concert, marionette artists performed the heart wrenching story of the prince and the princess for us. Lights were dimmed in the auditorium and the music emerged from the orchestra pit (which was being tried out for the very first time), and everyone watched the performance with baited breath. I felt like a child who has entered the colourful world of fairytales. The music swirled; colour and light effects swapped places with one another; should I concentrate on the music or the stage image? Uniting live music with a marionette performance was a superb idea, because until that night, we have only been able to see ballet performances to live music, or marionettes performing to pre-recorded music.
Judging from the audience's reaction it was a fantastic evening. There is still something new under the sun in the arts.
On October 7th, the National Philharmonic Orchestra played Mahler's Seventh Symphony in E minor, conducted by Zoltán Peskó. This work belongs to the composer's middle period. Written in 1905 and premiered in 1908, the E minor symphony bears the hallmarks of stylistic mixing so characteristic of this era. The orchestration is on a grand scale, with percussion instruments placed off stage (there are six percussion parts in the score), two harps, a guitar, mandolin and a huge assemblage of brass. Mahler's music (and also Bruckner's) is now enjoying a golden era in Hungary, despite Mahler being director of the Budapest Opera House from 1888 to 1891. His music has been performed in country's west of Hungary for ages. Interestingly, the Budapest public befriended Wagner's music, which Mahler much admired, very early on, and they were absolutely ravenous for Richard Strauss. One reason for this probably was that there were a variety of styles simultaneously present (Debussy and his followers, the other pole being Erik Satie). One of the principal branches was late romanticism, with all its exaggerations and the knowledge that this musical historical period must be brought to an end because there was nowhere left for it to go. The assessment of Mahler is one of the delicate points of musical history, because the composer was primarily a master of small forms, and yet thought in terms of large orchestras and long works. He experimented with the form of symphonies, with two, four, five and six movement works, some with vocal soloists, others with chorus.
The five movement Seventh Symphony also bears the hallmarks of musical diversity. From chorale like melodies to enticing Viennese operetta melodies, from brass instrumental fanfares to waltzes, from folk music to solos of just a few notes, everything can be found in this work. Which is why it is so hard to draw Mahler's music into a unity.
Zoltán Peskó, who was conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra for the second time in the last few months, succeeded perfectly. Although he had the score before him, he conducted the work from his head with an imposing self confident knowledge. His motions were expressive, not overly assertive, he didn't “conduct down” to the orchestra. I don't know how many times he rehearsed with the musicians but the end result was marvellous and convincing for even the most anti-Mahler listener. The five movements organically dovetailed into one another. Dynamic shades were presented with consummate care. Zoltán Peskó communicated the most minute elements of orchestration and the orchestra – as so many have written recently – proved itself an equal partner. Perhaps the hardest movement to interpret is the third movement, the Scherzo, placed as it is between the two Nachtmusik pieces. It is a kind of tragic waltz, and in its pain and crassness it is virtually without any positive affirmation. After the bombastic final movement we were treated to an encore: Wagner's Die Meistersingers overture. The orchestra played this well known operatic extract with freedom, Peskó took a marginally faster tempo than is conventional, which coming after the Mahler work, made it seem fresher and wittier; we were struck by its clear, easily comprehended form. Although the symphony received long rhythmic applause, after it died down, the opening bars of the overture suddenly seemed a mere mezzoforte by contrast.
Once again we can give thanks to the compositions, the orchestra and the conductor for a wonderful evening.
(Papirusz.hu, October 9, 2005)