Festival Academy Budapest 2017, Day 1
Kodály / Strauss / Brahms / Stravinsky
Budapest, Franz Liszt Music Academy — 2017-06-10
I was fortunate to be invited to review three concerts at this year’s Festival Academy Budapest for Bachtrack (see the link above). This was an exciting “first” for me, and an opportunity to return to this beautiful city. The last time I had been there was in my former (business) life, for a very short stay of one evening and one night, 33 years ago, back on 1984-05-31.
The Festival Academy Budapest is a chamber music festival, and this year was the second time that it took place. The first instance was a short(er) event, covering a long weekend. This year, the Festival Academy not only ran for a full week (2017-06-10 — 2017-06-16), but it also incorporated a true academy with numerous lectures and several master classes. There were also students’ (alumni’s) recitals, in which the master class teachers would support and play with the students. On top of that, this year, the Festival Academy incorporated the first Ilona Fehér International Violin Competition for young talents at age 8 – 18.
Basically, the Festival Academy takes place in the Franz Liszt Music Academy (Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music / Liszt Ferenc Zeneművészeti Egyetem), the main concerts are meant to take place in the Academy’s gorgeous Grand Hall. This certainly was the case for the concert I’m discussing here, as well as for the one on the following day (June 11th). For the remainder of the festival, this year, however, the concerts took place in alternate locations, such as the Pesti Vigadó, as the organ in the Grand Hall of the Franz Liszt Music Academy is being renovated. This can be seen as a limitation: the hall in the Pesti Vigadó is smaller, the acoustics somewhat limited. At the same time, it’s also an enrichment, given the beauty of the alternate venue.
This year’s Festival Academy commemorates the death of Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967), 50 years ago. Kodály’s compositions occupied key positions in most of the concerts during this festival. The printed material didn’t really mention this, but this was mentioned in several verbal announcements: the festival also honored the conductor, pianist and composer Zoltán Kocsis (1952 – 2016) who passed away six months ago. Kocsis had personal relationships with many, if not most of the artists who participated in this year’s Festival Academy.
Both these dedicatees are Hungarian, as well as many or most of the participating artists. Given the rich musical life and tradition of this country, this is by no means a restriction. However, the Festival definitely is to be seen as an international event. Why otherwise would well-renowned artists such as Vilde Frang (*1986) and Shlomo Mintz (*1957) take part in this event?
Posts on Other Concerts in This Year’s Festival Academy
- 2017-06-11: Festival Academy Budapest, Day 2 (Grand Hall, Franz Liszt Music Academy)
- 2017-06-12: Festival Academy Budapest, Day 3 (Old Franz Liszt Music Academy / Széchenyi Spa)
- 2017-06-13: Festival Academy Budapest, Day 4 (Pesti Vigadó)
The opening concert for this year’s Festival Academy was held in the Grand Hall of the Franz Liszt Music Academy. The concert ran under the title “Metamorphosis” or “Transfigurations“. I offered a wide range of chamber music, from Lieder to melodrama, from Brahms to music of the mid-20th century (modern classics, so to say).
Zoltán Kodály: Songs for Choir
Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) and Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) were the two central and dominating composers in Hungary, in the first half of the 29th century. Both did extensive research on Hungarian folk music. Their compositions reflect the results of that research: many of their works employ rhythmic structures of Hungarian folk music. On top of that, many of Kodály’s vocal pieces have themselves become an integral part of the Hungarian folk tradition. The concert demonstrated this in an exemplary fashion. The program had been rearranged and now started with choral music by Zoltán Kodály.
After a few short speeches and announcements, the program opened by the girls of the Pro Musica Children’s Choir / Cantemus Choir. The choir members were walking into the hall from all sides, also from the back of the audience, singing. The girls appeared to be singing without guidance. Only later I realized that on the side of the audience, the choir master, Dénes Szabó, one of the world-wide pre-eminent choral educators, was making very discreet gestures to coordinate the singing. The around 50 girls were all in simple, traditional dresses in mostly muted colors. They walked onto the stage, always singing, then spread themselves all over the stage, in a very loose formation.
The first song was “Bell Games” by Soma Szabó (*1974). It’s a song that resembled the many bells of a church, their sound mixing seemingly arbitrarily in colorful ringing, without overall rhythmic structure—a really fascinating sound! After this, Dénes Szabó (now on the podium) conducted three virtuosic, fast pieces by Zoltán Kodály (the second piece had a very nice, harmonious, lyrical middle part). It definitely is popular (folk) music that went straight into the hearts of the audience. The choir ended its presentation with an encore, with the singers spread over three sides of the hall. From the applause one could ell that this is music that lives within this the people of this country! The program mentioned the “Ave Maria” by Kodaly—this, however, was not performed.
Hungary is world-famous for its musical education, especially in the area of choir singing. That performance definitely gave testimony for this reputation. What I found most amazing here was not artful singing technique, nor vocal technique in general, as teachers and conservatories in Western Europe convey to their students. Rather, we heard a very natural, simple way of singing, of vocalization. However, these voices mixed ideally. All of the singers exhibited astounding firmness in absolute and relative intonation. Despite the very loose placement of the singers, the intervals were pure, without exception. And the pitch remained spot-on for around 5 minutes, even in the faintest pianissimo. This is not the first time I hear a Hungarian choir—but this quality amazes me every time!
Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) write his Metamorphosen (TrV 290, AV 142) 1945 as a study for 23 strings (10 violins, 5 violas, 5 cellos, three double basses). The composition is commissioned by and dedicated to Paul Sacher (1906 – 1999), Swiss conductor, patron and impresario, who also premiered it in 1946 (with Strauss conducting the final rehearsal). It’s a complex, polyphonic piece using five different themes, two of which are from works by Beethoven.
Actually, the piece started off as sketches for 7 string instruments. 1996, the cellist Rudolf Leopold (*1954) created a version for string septet from the full score for 23 instruments. This reduced version was played in the concert. In a way, Leopold took the composition back to its origins. “Metamorphosen” is in a single movement, but has several tempo annotations: Adagio ma non troppo — Agitato — Più allegro — tempo primo — molto lento — Più allegro — Adagio, tempo primo
It’s music so typical of Richard Strauss in its harmonies—music with incredible density and intensity. It felt like “taking a bath in late-romantic harmonies”. To the degree in which the listener’s ear adapted the acoustics of the venue and the chamber music setting, the sound of the ensemble, the sound of the music appeared to grow in intensity and richness. Only in the final, long decrescendo I felt a slight loss in tension and intensity. However, I think that particularly for such a small(er) setting, that last part is the most difficult part of this piece, as far as the interpretation is concerned.
Small vs. Original Setting?
Compared to the original, “orchestral” setting with 23 string instruments, these seven string players created a closer focus, more direct contact between music and audience, even though—obviously—they weren’t able to create a similar volume. The sound was certainly “smaller”. On the other hand, soft segments appeared totally internalized, intimate. Still, in the intense sections, the complexity and the density of the texture did not appear to suffer any substantial losses from the original score. I found the articulation, the tonal quality, also the natural, inconspicuous vibrato to be very well-matched among the instruments.
Johannes Brahms: Two Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano, op.91
1885, Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote Two Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano, op.91:
- “Gestillte Sehnsucht” (“In goldnen Abendschein“) in D major, op.91/1
- “Geistliches Wiegenlied” (“Die ihr schwebet“) in F major, op.91/2
These are two incredibly warm-hearted, intense songs. Brahms wrote the second one, “Geistliches Wiegenlied” for the newly born son Johannes of his close friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907).
Already the first notes of “Gestillte Sehnsucht” enraptured me by the very characterful, slightly rough but warm sound of the viola. In combination with this sound, Brahms’ incredibly beautiful, heart-felt accompaniment and melodies brought me close to tears, even before Ildikó Komlósi started singing. I think the singer captured the contemplative atmosphere of these Lieder well. Unfortunately, in my opinion, her singing was excessively dramatic, her vibrato too heavy and expansive. With this, by and large (to me), she lost the character, the expression in Brahms’ music—the intimacy in particular.
I found this to be even more true for the “Geistliches Wiegenlied“. As a cradle song, to me, this asks for an uncluttered, unadorned voice, suitable to make a baby fall asleep. A voice suited for a Valkyrie (that’s an exaggeration here, though) rather makes a baby feel scared.
Igor Stravinsky: L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)
Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) worked together with the Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (1878 – 1947) on the melodrama L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale). The piece, “to be read, played, and danced” was completed and premiered in 1918. The underlying, Russian folk tale “The Runaway Soldier and the Devil” is from a collection by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev (1826 – 1871), see also Wikipedia.
The original plot / score calls for three actors and one or several dancers, accompanied by seven instruments (violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion). In the form presented at this concert, in the part after the intermission, it was a melodrama, narrated by the actor Pál Mácsai (*1961), directed by Maxim Rysanov (*1978), and a group of instrumentalists:
- Barnabás Kelemen, violin
- Knut Erik Sundquist, double bass
- Thorsten Johanns, clarinet
- Attila Jankó, bassoon
- Balázs Nemes, trumpet
- Róbert Káip, trombone
- Zoltán Rácz, percussion
Stravinsky’s original version was based on Ramuz’ French text, hence retained the French language—at least for the premiere in Lausanne on 1918-09-28, conducted by Ernest Ansermet (1883 – 1969). The text was also translated to English and to German. It is essential that the listener understands the text, as Stravinsky’s music is only an illustration (certainly when there is no dancing). For the most part, the narrator talks without musical accompaniment.
The musicians were sitting / standing in a semicircle, the narrator, Pál Mácsai, standing among them. The instruments from left to right were violin, double bass (narrator), clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, with the percussionist standing slightly in the back, between the woodwinds and the brass players. As the music features some intricate rhythmic transitions, most performances feature a conductor. Here, this was Maxim Rysanov, standing in the center of the semicircle.
In the center of the performance, naturally, stood Pál Mácsai with his very impressive, strong, projecting voice, his tale very vivid, enthralling, even just from the sound, as I did not understand a single word.
As indicated above, it was not only natural, but actually necessary to have the story narrated in Hungarian. The non-Hungarians could read the translation to English from a panel above the musicians, below the organ above the stage. This does away with the original language, the French rhythm, the poetry in that language, but still is preferable over Hungarians hearing the French original without understanding, having to read the translation off a screen. Now, I found myself in the “opposite” situation: not understanding the spoken word, having to read the subtitles. I found this to be non-ideal, to say the least. Reading the subtitles proved more of a distraction than being helpful. In addition, of course, the translation was English, rather than the original, French text.
Overall, I can’t really judge / rate this part of the performance—and the spoken word is in the center of this piece. Still, listening to Pál Mácsai was very entertaining, to say the least, even enthralling. I found the Hungarian language (from this actor, certainly) to sound much more tense, terse, tighter, more pointed, more contoured, more dramatic for sure, than the original French idiom. In comparison, the Hungarian language in this recitation sometimes made me think of the barking of a dog (no insult intended, I’m just trying to describe my auditive, superficial impression).
The Musical Part
The “little orchestra” was playing with obvious joy, even fun, very much engaged, active, even enthralling. The double bass (Knut Erik Sundquist) provided a firm, rhythmic foundation. He also was essential in maintaining the drive in this music. Another key part is with the violin. I found Barnabás Kelemen‘s playing excellent: on purpose, he made the instrument sound rough, simple, coarse, somewhat archaic. It really felt like the simple fiddle standing in the center of Ramuz’ tale. Next to these instruments, also the trumpet (Balázs Nemes) and the clarinet (Thorsten Johanns) have prominent roles—and their playing was equally excellent.
As stated, I could not really rate the second half of the concert. Still, this was an impressive opening for the Festival Academy!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.