If the names Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kocsis appear on a single concert programme, I make sure that I listen to the concert. And why shouldn't I? Because this evening embodies the opportunity for the spiritual encounter between composer and performer. An encounter, which soars high above the burgeoning but in many aspects, nonetheless shallow routine of our musical life.
The programme commenced with a unique premiere: 20 Hungarian Folk Songs in an orchestral version. Bartók composed this set for solo voice and piano in 1929, the same year he wrote the orchestral versions of the Two Rhapsodies. A few years later, Bartók himself orchestrated the piano accompaniment of five songs for Mária Basilides and the Budapest Philharmonic Society. Kocsis has now undertaken to orchestrate the “remaining” 15 songs as a fellow creator, creating a new guise for this work. As he writes, his primary motivation was to draw the attention of performers to this unfairly neglected Bartók opus. The Twenty Hungarian Folk Songs are truly an important creation, in which Bartók places folk melodies within the context of his own sovereign musical language, just as he does with the Out of Doors suite and Improvisations for piano. It is no coincidence that the rich and beautiful musical language of the mature Bartók should offer an attractive challenge to Kocsis, who by his own admission, finds orchestration a means of satisfying his own compositional urges. There are those who regard the idea of orchestration as blasphemy, although in my opinion, only the end result should condemn the enterprise. This time, the end result – although not entirely free of problems – was exceptionally exciting and attractive.
The way that Kocsis evoked Bartók's orchestral “barbaro” voice in the song “Ne búsuljon, komámasszony” was simply splendid, it was that tempestuous and diabolic world which we know from the score of (for example) the Romanian Dance no. 1. And what more appropriate place to encounter this diabolic tone than in a folksong which makes such recurring mention of the devil. I sensed that the handling of the orchestra in Kocsis's orchestration to be quite simply a thing of genius. In places, material from the original piano accompaniment is handed over to the chorus, as in the “Bújdosó ének”, the “Székely friss” or the “Hatforintos nóta.” At other times, Kocsis created a new dramaturgy from the alternation of solo voice and chorus (I would note that I am almost convinced that Bartók would not have alternated solo and chorus within a single verse, as happens in the “Juhászcsúfoló”, but opted for a more puritan solution, but it cannot be denied that Kocsis's casting of the material stretches the drama of the movement to breaking point.) This orchestration runs riot in the majestic colours of a Bartókian large orchestra, and can be regarded as work congenial to the composer. Its only problematic feature is that it sometimes buries the singer. Márta Lukin fared worst as almost a half of what she sang remained “inaudible” in the shadow of the orchestral sonority. Even then I cannot entirely blame Kocsis for this, since it is not easy to renounce these splendid orchestral fireworks. A heretical thought struck me: why not now in the age of the microphone, introduced some technical assistance?
hose who heard the concert on the radio would not have been aware of this problem. And there is another question. Whether Mária Basilides was able to make herself heard all those years ago, across the superb orchestral sound? The singers differed in the degree to which they became partners in this exciting enterprise. Júlia Hajnóczy's production pleased the most, her young, colourful voice seemed not to know the force of gravity. She stood her ground in both character and volume, indeed her obvious knowledge of the original performance mode of these songs gave her singing an authenticity. Where the character of the folksong so desired it, she could create the impudent and yet lovable sound of youth. Mihály Kálmándi also superbly characterised and was easily audible too. Dénes Gulyás, standing in at the last moment, sang his part, but it would be unsporting to blame him for some minor mannerisms and intonational uncertainties. Apart from Júlia Hajnóczky, the other singers did not stand out for the singing of clear and bright tones. The National Philharmonic Orchestra and National Choir proved a superb partner for the conductor and orchestrator.
As proved the soloist in the two Rhapsodies, Barnabás Kelemen. We all remember a recording of the orchestral version with Menuhin and Boulez. I dare to state that what we heard this evening would bear comparison with that legendary record. We have had numerous occasions to convince ourselves of Barnabás Kelemen's stunning talent, but on Thursday evening, we also learned that he is continuing on down the finest of paths: his artistry is maturing and enriching. He is immaculately secure on his instrument, and using this solid foundation, can build on his playing which is rich in its infinitely lively and striking means of expression. And what a pleasure to hear an orchestra which is such a partner to both conductor and soloist. The woodwind, for example, shaped the countermelody to the violin theme like the calling card of a mature and supreme musician. It was a superb production. The plasticity of the whole orchestral sonority reached the level of the finest Bartók productions conducted by Boulez.
As you can hear, dear Radio Listeners, this critic has reached such a high plane of enthusiasm, but is now suddenly embarrassed because he must talk about the Concerto, which was performed in the second half. It was a performance of the Concerto, the like of which nothing has been heard recently, if at all. Yes, the Concerto, Bartók's most popular orchestral work: in truth the only one which is performed to the point of boredom, and about which it is so hard to say anything new. A composition which – perhaps because of the multiplicity of mediocre performances – often seems exaggeratedly emotional to our embittered souls, and often makes us wish it did not overshadow Bartók's harder and more intellectual works in the repertoire. Kocsis however referred to the Concerto as a world masterpiece that cannot be heard often enough. Perhaps we might have asked if the tempo was not quicker than customary, if the music had not gripped from the very first, that the proportions of sonority were perhaps not somehow misjudged, had not every orchestral colour sounded as we had always wished they would and had not the instrumental groups taking the solo role not performed their duty with such concentration and commitment as if their lives depended on its success. I think that the impetus dictated by Kocsis had nothing in common with the pretentious, superficial dramatics that have become so popular in our era. Instead, it is the elemental energy to which both Bartók and Kocsis's musicianship draws upon as a common source.
I have been visiting Budapest concert halls for twenty years, and I remember only one Hungarian conductor who could stand on the podium as authentic a musician as Kocsis does when conducting Bartók. His name was János Ferencsik. Hopefully it won't appear blasphemous if I say that the performing technique of today's National Philharmonic Orchestra leaves Ferencsik's orchestra a long way behind. If someone remembers those sardonic remarks which refer to Kocsis the conductor's inadequate left hand technique, let me say categorically that it is time now to forget them forever. However visual an era we now inhabit, there is only one decisive matter and that is how things sound. And the sound produced by the National Philharmonic Orchestra under Kocsis in Bartók is, at present and to my knowledge, the finest thing this nation currently produces. Something which surely requires world recognition.
Again I sensed that pressing desire for this orchestra and conductor to record all of Bartók's orchestral works on CD. Even if anyone supposes that as a business idea, it is a dud. One last thing. In the second half, a rather eccentric looking elderly gentleman sat opposite the conductor in the choir loft, apparently having been commissioned to draw Zoltán Kocsis. I don't know whether his sketch was a success or not, but the finest portrait produced on this evening was drawn by Kocsis, a self portrait and one of the orchestra.
(Hungarian Radio, Új Zenei Újság [New Music Magazine])