When I first chanced upon the announcement of the National Philharmonic Orchestra's April 27th concert in the Concert Calendar, I immediately knew that that was the place for me.
The choice of programme is virtually a symbol for Zoltán Kocsis's efforts at developing both the orchestra and the audience. Two Stravinsky works, which are rarer than white crows in Hungarian concert halls, a work each by Ravel and Rachmaninov, neither of which may have ever been heard in Budapest before and Bartók's most poorly fated symphonic composition, Four Orchestral Pieces. Of course with such a selection, one cannot expect such a tremendous success as might be achieved from popular hackneyed works which the audience would fall greedily upon, like a child reaching for its favourite rattle. But a child's development would be swifter and healthier if it was exposed to new stimuli and learns how to deal with them too. Perhaps I am going to use an old fashioned term when I state that this activity counts as a cultural mission, it is Kocsis using it to beat the walls of ossified conservatism and the bad habits of decades in Hungary. It would also be a mistake hearing this to suppose that this concert was an invitation to the audience to an acoustic further education course and not an enjoyable feast of music. Stravinsky's trombone mischief, the Scherzo a la Russe, originally written for jazz band, can hardly be accused of asceticism, since it is full blooded joyous music, which served as a piquantly cheerful overture for the evening. Kocsis conducted it with freedom and relaxation. The Bartók that followed, with its confessional tone from the 1910s, signified a sharp contrast to the bitter style of 1940s Stravinsky. The neglect of the Four Orchestra Pieces has always been a mystery to me. The intrusion of the gestures and tone of the stage works written at this time, Blue Beard, Mandarin and the Wooden Prince, makes it exceptionally exciting. The beautiful instrumental colours of the Preludio immediately meander into the fairy tale world of ballet. The masterly orchestration came flexibly and powerfully to life on this evening, and it occurred to me that it is a shame these days, there is precious little likelihood of a new set of Complete Bartók recordings, because if there was, the National Philharmonic under Kocsis could produce a great deal of reference material with its performances.
The Scherzo graphically illustrated how the musical expression of the “demonic” transformed between The Wooden Prince and Mandarin. I sensed that Kocsis's presence as a conductor in this movement (and perhaps in the funeral march too) was more restrained than desirable, since he refrained from giving certain characteristic themes more powerful pronouncement. It was as if he sensed that this music can stand for itself and does not need powdering up. This same restrained behaviour was absolutely correct in the veiled beauty of the Intermezzo, which Kocsis performed at a tempo slightly slower to the accustomed, but was not for a moment seduced into sentimentality and saccharine sweetness.
Ravel's orchestral song cycle, Sheherazade from 1903 occupies a comparable place in Ravel's ouevre as Bartok's Four Orchestral Pieces. The individual voice and technique is already present and correct, but the composition does not rise to the level of one of the more representative creations. Magical orchestration is the common feature of the Ravel and Bartók scores. Katalin Károlyi sang with a sensitivity to the character of the songs and exemplary French enunciation, but often the power of her voice seemed insufficient, although Kocsis truly held the orchestra on a tight rein. Her voice production in the upper registers was not without problems, although I suspect those sitting at the back may not have heard anything at all of it.
Kocsis's great favourite Rachmaninov was represented this evening by 5 Études-tableaux. The composer chose studies from the two sets he composed in the 1910s for Respighi, who then set about the orchestration. For me, this was the least elevated part of the concert, in which the novelty value of the work and its interest was not married to the highest musical quality. Having said that, Respighi's bombastic orchestration created the possibility for splendid orchestral playing, which the audience lapped up enthusiastically.
The closing work of the evening was Stravinsky's Symphony in three movements, which was another product of the 1940s, while the composer was living in America. It is no accident that Kocsis loves this work so deeply, since the masterly balance between raw power, and refined wit, suggested by the score, comes very close to being a portrait of Kocsis himself. The orchestra of the National Philharmonic made complete this great encounter between composer and conductor with superb individual achievements and first class ensemble playing.
(Hungarian Radio, Új Zenei Újság/New Music Magazine)