Since becoming chief musical director of the National Philharmonic Orchestra, Zoltán Kocsis has not desisted from thinking and acting like a pianist. Evidence of this has been his concerto invitations extended to highly talented soloists whom Hungarian audiences have not been able to enjoy before. For example, the Russian Arkadi Volodos, who performed at the Music Academy in 1999, and the Argentinean Ingrid Fliter. Originally, Volodos was scheduled to return for the Music Academy concert on Tuesday. Then for a while, it seemed he would be substituted by another (to Hungarian audiences) virtually unknown pianist, Alexander Toradze. Ultimately, we were able to observe at first hand a third artist, the Paris based Korean Kun Woo Paik, who took on the solo part in Prokofiev's 2nd Piano Concerto.
It is not by chance that this composition is so rarely performed. It is avoided partly because of its weighty, bleak content and dark colours, and also because it is mercilessly difficult, virtually eviscerating the soloist: he has to be on top of his game to cope with the unrelenting piano part. Kun Woo Paik, it would seem, does not know the meaning of the word impossible. His fingers appear to be constituted from flexible steel, his technique is faultless, his sound metallic and his stamina remarkable. I felt he convincingly communicated the character of the composition – although this is perhaps only a minor merit since the concerto is not characterised by great variety. Under Kun Woo Paik's hands, the full fortissimo chords resounded, the passage work was overwhelmingly effective, and the Prokofiev staccatos brooked no opposition. A performance that concentrates on this single world of character makes the listener curious whether the artist can do anything else. I began pondering if Kun Woo Paik's touch is suitable for softness, and the mixing of sensual soft colours. Can he be direct and communicative, even philosophical, should the work demand it? What would he do with Mozart or Debussy? Well, we still await an answer with these two composers, but for an encore, he performed Liszt's Valse Oubliée No. 1, which he played flexibly and lightly, although undoubtedly with less colour than the content of the work suggests. It would be good to hear the remarkable Korean virtuoso's playing in the framework of a solo concert.
Zoltán Kocsis and his orchestra framed the concerto with two symphonies in D major: Haydn's No. 93 and Brahms's No. 2. I felt that both performances were superbly successful, showing flexibly all the virtues which the newly formed ensemble, after so much hard work, can claim as their own. For Kocsis, Haydn's symphonies provide an important arena for pedagogy and for systematic orchestra building: this was shown by the attention devoted to achieving a full, homogenous string sound; the working out of stratified dynamics and refinement of character, as well as the precise and sensitive apportioning of stresses. Kocsis's interpretation placed the folk-like good humour of the opening Allegro in centre stage. He exploited to the hilt the Largo Cantabile's every surprise element and moments humour, of which there are many. It is enough just to recall the rude awakening given to the apparently slumbering orchestra by the solo bassoon at the end of the movement. Kocsis imbued the minuet with powerful form and then rounded off the composition by returning to the equilibrium of the first movement.
After the reduced orchestra of the Haydn symphony, the Brahms's Symphony No. 2 returned to the world of full sonorities and great orchestral tuttis. If before we primarily observed individual details, here the listener's attention was grabbed by both the continuing careful working out of details, but even more, by the conductor's emphasis on interpreting form and genre. Zoltán Kocsis, I felt, approached the Second Symphony on the principal of balance. This time, the opening movement was less dramatic, the conductor instead allowed the Brahmsian lyricism to blossom forth. In the Adagio non troppo, there was a surprising number of striking intonations and powerful effects. The Third Movement Allegretto seemed now more energetic than the typically “tame scherzo” to which we have become accustomed in Brahms, setting the stage for the Finale, with its rushing tempo, rich sonority and fiery temperament. The equally high level of attainment from the orchestra indicates that their lengthy period of work is beginning to produce dividends. Kocsis and the National Philharmonic Orchestra performed Brahms's 10th Hungarian Dance as an encore. (National Philharmonic Orchestra, Zoltán Kocsis, Kun Woo Paik -Music Academy, 16th April 2002)