People inevitably make comparisons. The appearance on the stage of the Saint-Matthieu church on Thursday of the Hungarian National Philharmonic, led by conductor and pianist Zoltán Kocsis, surpassed the Russian State Orchestra who played the previous day incontrovertibly.
That time, there was no soaring, only the precision of a machine without the discipline causing the least stiffness. Quite the opposite, here everything was filled with flexibility and glorious imagination, created by the expansive and clear conducting. All this was apparent in Beethoven's rarely heard St Stephen's Overture, where the composer tries to be both Hungarian and festive. It was both green and burning red, and recalled Svetlanov, but without the attitude of a Russian general. Zoltán Kocsis, with his deep knowledge of Bartók's work and his inexhaustible discoveries of the composer's piano works, has orchestrated three early piano pieces, the rhapsodic nature of which in places relaxes into sparseness. The grouping of the orchestra utilises every conceivable and possible colour of the spectrum. The National Philharmonic was quite astonishing…
The day's soloist was Barnabás Kelemen, the young Hungarian violinist, one of whose classmates at the Franz Liszt Music Academy was Kristóf Baráti, whom we heard the day before. Here again we make comparisons. Barnabás Kelemen was playing Bartók's Second Concerto. There is no question that his tone is not as miraculous as that of his compatriot. But what lightness we heard in the well tempered fugue, what transitions, what empathy for the wittiness of individual variations! And what understanding between conductor and orchestra in the subtle application of colours! Zoltán Kocsis has had the idea of creating a new triptych, by framing Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead with two of Debussy's Images (Gigue and Spring Ronde). The combination was surprising but ultimately acceptable. The capricious varied sensuality of the Debussy is both caressing and bulky. It makes a fascinating contrast with The Isle of the Dead, with its unmerciful and powerful and unusually suggestive crescendo.
(L'Alsace, July 7th 2001)