It may have been predictable for the Hungarian National Philharmonic, which visited the Irvine Barclay Theatre Friday night, to offer an all-Hungarian program. But it was also the right and compelling thing to do.
As often happens when an orchestra takes its native repertoire on tour, the Hungarians brought a nice mixture of zealotry and expertise to the music of Kodály, Liszt and Bartók.
Give a great deal of the credit to music director Zoltán Kocsis. Better known in this country as a star pianist, Kocsis, 50, took over the leadership of this ensemble in 1997, reorganized it and now conducts its with unquestionable authority.
He is an interesting baton technician and interpreter. Like some other pianist/conductors (Vladimir Ashkenazy comes to mind), he seems to play the orchestra rather than merely wave his baton in front of it. The music is constantly under firm control, the phrases – and the instrumental sonorities that embody them – are outlined in bold. The end of his baton etches it all clearly and exactly in mid-air.
His readings of Kodály's under-appreciated Variations on a Hungarian Folk Tune, “The Peacock,” and its close next-door neighbor, Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, were both assertive and sane, completely planned from first note to last, sculpted in pace, yet filled with the energy that comes from easy confidence and familiarity.
The orchestra executed them marvelously. Currently on a two-month tour of the United States (presented locally by the Philharmonic Society), the ensemble seemed rehearsed to the nth degree. The compact string section (only six cellos and four double basses were onstage Friday) produces a slender but unified and mellow sound, never forcing the issue. Playing with bright abandon, the brass nevertheless find a perfect balance with each other. The woodwinds are full of character – milky oboes, blatant clarinets and hollow- sounding bassoons – that make their simplest contributions delectable.
The performances of the Kodály and Bartók works put them into sharp focus. They danced as if for the first time in well-fitting shoes. Indeed, in the jocular second and windy fifth movements of the Bartók, the tempos were faster than usual, a freedom of feeling evidencing that comfort. One even noticed a few string players at rest in the second movement raise their eyebrows and heads on one upbeat and bring them down on the following beat, so irresistible was the flow.
The performance of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, with Kocsis conducting from the keyboard, was another thing altogether. Possessed might be a good word for it. As a pianist, Kocsis would appear to be a more aggressive, even raucous musician, and in between his hammered virtuoso work and his hyper-expressive, rubato-laden lyrical passages, he stood up and exhorted the orchestra to ever new heights of enthusiasm. So this is how the piece is supposed to go, was the only reasonable listeners' response, along with robust applause.
The encore was the 10th Hungarian Dance by that “honorary Hungarian,” Brahms.
(The Orange County Register, January 27, 2003)