One of the interesting aspects to the 20 Hungarian Folksongs performed in the opening concert of the Budapest Music Weeks, was that it was partly orchestrated by Zoltán Kocsis. Another thing of interest is that as things stand, we will never hear it again. Of course, as we had the opportunity for an interview, we put this question, as well as others that our readers sent us.
We have heard that there were certain copyright problems concerning this evening's programme. Is this information the case?
Obviously this is a reference to the 20 Hungarian Folksongs. Luckily, I received permission from Gábor Vásárhelyi, who is the local Hungarian representative for the Bartók estate, for a single performance this evening. This is quite an achievement because many have not received even that much. I think this question should be sorted out once and for all. I believe it can be decided who can touch another author's works and just where the copyright laws are to be drawn. So, what are the obligations of an adaptor, and what artistic rights do they enjoy if they attempt to act in the spirit of the composer. There ought to be some kind of body set up for each composer, or each individual case, whose decision cannot be appealed against but which has to give a detailed justification. For example, I once had an exchange of letters with Péter Bartók (Bartók's son). When I rewrote the 14th Bagatelle for an anthology for clarinet and piano, myself and the publisher sent him the manuscript. He replied with a 16 page letter. This included 13 quotations from the score, in which he specified point by point, what I had to put back. This is all very well, but if I restore the original score, then it is no longer my own work. But I know the style very well. I have played all of Bartók's piano works and the two Suites, and with the exception of the Kossuth Symphony, have conducted all his orchestral works. I have played the piano parts of every existing Bartók work, and I have transcribed a number of Bartók works for other instrumental ensembles, having shown my worth with works by other composers. I think that in the end, the work of someone like myself has to be judged differently to that of someone else, who regards it as a kind of musical breakfast in bed, and who perhaps wants to use Bartók name and works to promote their own career.
Your orchestrations of works by Debussy and Ravel have appeared on a Hungaroton CD. You have also worked on setting some Rachmaninov songs. On this evening's programme, your orchestrations also feature. What is next?
I'd like to orchestrate a series of Liszt's piano works. Works which seem to cry out for orchestration. Liszt worked enormously, he did a great deal – naturally he allowed quite a few poor works out of his grasp, and composed many pieces which later he had neither the time, energy or inclination to rework for other ensembles. Many works remained purely as piano pieces. I was not in the least surprised when it transpired that the Two Legends were originally an orchestral work, just as the First Mephisto Waltz was intended to be. Anyone who knows these works cannot be surprised by this. In the case of Liszt, we have to repay a great burden of debt, we have to slightly change the increasingly murky picture of Liszt, which in the West – I don't know who is responsible – seems to be developing. I am also thinking of certain Kodály works, or those pieces of Hungarian folk music which do not feature in the Spinning Room, or Czinka Panna, or his other works which he later rewrote for large orchestra. It would be possible to assemble a neat cycle from all these.
Do you plan to expand your piano repertoire?
As I said a few days ago: why should I be the hundredth pianist to play Schumann's Humoresque, when Pollini, Argerich – and I could list others at length – play it very well? I'm rather more interested in things in which there is no question I have something new to say. Like devising concert programmes with which I can draw attention to certain non-obvious interrelations. Today's programme, for example, explores Bartók's creative period from 1926 to 1932. Naturally, I don't mean the Concerto but the other works. In certain details of the 20 Hungarian Folksongs, we can see the importance for Bartók of the intonation of the First Piano Concerto, which many look down on and neglect, or that of the Fourth Quartet, or how in these works, polymodality plays such an important role. These interrelations are interesting. Or: how important was Romanian instrumental music for Bartók, because he used it not just in the two rhapsodies but in the 20 Hungarian Folk Songs as well. I would like to illuminate these hidden relationships in my programmes. There is no sense in just throwing together concert programmes willy nilly.
Are you making more recordings for Philips?
Not since my last Bartók record. You don't have to immediately assume that this is because of the great recession in the recording industry, although obviously this plays a role. I am currently in a phase of my life where I don't think I necessarily have to make recordings. Of course, I am making other records, but the next one will appear for the Hungaroton firm.
Have you thought about conducting operas? There are few conductors who have not at least tried. For example, Vásáry experimented with Rigoletto.
I am not an opera person. An opera person is someone who has grown up in the Opera Hosue, who has scurried behind the curtain, seen what goes on and smells the grease paint. Someone who see clearly what an enormous conglomerate the Opera House is. When Győriványi spoke of major reforms, nodding to what I had achieved here, I could only nod my head. I only had to battle two trade unions, but at the opera, there is a ballet, a chorus, and there are set designers, ancillary staff and I have no idea who else. It must be very hard to handle all this. Of course, as a guest, it can seem somewhat simpler, but I must say that the today's standard repertoire does not really interest me. Even though they perform these operas more or less well. If Salome works well at the Opera, why should I conduct it? Jancsi Kovács does it well. It would make more sense to stage rarely performed or unknown works. I'd be interested in Debussy's Pelleas, or to see the three Bartók works done well on stage. I'd be interested in some Stravinsky works. I don't know whether the Nightingale or Mavra has ever been played at the Opera House. Naturally, Wagner is interesting – I feel I understand it – but at the Opera House you have to pay attention to so many things, that I am afraid I'd be so gripped by the music and only that. Wagner, as is common knowledge, had little respect for singers – or rather not singers but people. Mozart's operas interest me very much. So, I would be interested. But I must say once and for all, I am not a man of the opera. I would have to really learn it, and I don't know if I would have time at all.
So no question of keeping it at arms length out of principal.
Of course not, absolutely not.
How long does your contract run for?
Shall I be honest? I haven't a clue! You ought to ask Géza Kovács. Maybe 2005, 2006? I don't know, I'm so involved with orchestral work that it doesn't particularly interest me.
Would you abandon the National Philharmonic Orchestra for, say, an enticing contract abroad?
Certainly not. Every time I return to the National Philharmonic after conducting a foreign orchestra, again and again, I learn to respect (ever more deeply) this ensemble. For its flexibility, love of music and humility. And mostly because they are willing to learn. The so called great orchestras – and I am truly thinking of the greatest – embody such a bad sheep-like spirit, which also characterised the former Hungarian State Concert Orchestra (the predecessor of the National Philharmonic, although this was a much inferior orchestra). They embody a false pride, a false consciousness, basically personifying what Pilinszky said about the petit bourgeoisie: “the secret principal: pettily but with bluster.” These orchestras embody this. They know very little about music. (They know more about instruments, naturally, but they are still along way away from the great soloists. Not in the acquisition of instrumental playing but in terms of music) What has happened to that individual spontaneity and initiative which I will never allow to die out at the National Philharmonic Orchestra? One of my guiding principals, as András Mihály said, is: “truly good orchestral playing can only be based on chamber music.” I will never leave the National Philharmonic Orchestra. It is the greatest joy to be here. Who needs a new wife, when mine is prettier, more beautiful. And younger.
There were words about you in last Saturday's Népszava… [note: Zoltán Rácz, leader of the Amadinda Percussion Ensemble, criticised Hungarian orchestras and the NPO in particular, for not playing enough contemporary music]
So you evidently got the message.
Our audience is growing, but what it the situation with theirs? I think this is what all that was about, not looking for a victim and someone to blame for contemporary music. It is as if the National Philharmonic bore responsibility for the intensity of modern music. Today's music simply has no unified style. Everything has become exceptionally complex and I don't think that anyone is going to predict that light music and serious music, which has separated entirely, will ever meet up again. Or just who and how the music of the near future is going to move. The trends are not clear right now. I at least do not see a tendency to which I could give prominence with a clear conscience. I think I will prove in today's concert that I don't want to spare my efforts. I have interesting duties which demand my energy. Not that I have anything to reply with.
We print this interview a little late, but – as we know – better late than never. We spoke with Zoltán Kocsis before the opening concert of the Budapest Music Weeks on September 25th.
István Nagy Dauner