Festival Academy Budapest 2017, Day 2
Schubert / Kodály / Ravel / Beethoven
Budapest, Franz Liszt Music Academy — 2017-06-11
This is the second concert that I attended at the Festival Academy Budapest. Just like the concert on the previous day, it took place in the Grand Hall of the Franz Liszt Music Academy (Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music / Liszt Ferenc Zeneművészeti Egyetem). As on the previous day, the program featured a range of chamber music, from songs to string quartet, music by Schubert, Kodály, Ravel, and Beethoven:
Franz Schubert: Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, op.posth.159, D.934
I have discussed two recordings of the Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, op.posth.159, D.934, by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) in an earlier posting; rather than reiterating that, I’m just giving the list of movements, which are typically played attacca:
- Andante molto
- Tempo I – Allegro vivace – Allegretto – Presto
This is Schubert’s last work for violin and piano. It appeared in print only after the composer’s death.
The two artists for this Fantasy were the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang (*1986), and the pianist José Gallardo (*1970). I have briefly written about Vilde Frang in a review for a chamber music concert in Zurich. In the case of José Gallardo, this is my first encounter: the pianist was born in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and is now teaching in the Music Department of the University of Mainz. Vilde Frang plays a violin by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume from 1864.
Why is the Fantasy Played so Rarely?
There are a few recordings of the Fantasy in C major, but it isn’t heard that often in concert. There are several reasons for this. For one, the work features substantial technical challenges. As already in his “Wanderer Fantasy”, op.15 (D.760), he did not pay much—if any—attention to playability in this final period of his life. Moreover, a key difficulty lies in limitations of modern instruments, primarily the piano. The outer parts of the Fantasy are filled with tremolos in one or both hands, all pp, into which the violin gradually “creeps in” very softly, almost unnoticeably.
This invariably leads to issues with the acoustic balance: on a modern concert grand (a Steinway D-274 in this case) it is close to impossible to play these tremolos with the required softness, and the same holds true for the virtuosic scales in the central parts.. The grand piano was fully open, which only made things worse (I cannot understand why the lid wasn’t at least half-closed!). If the violin were to play louder, this would ruin the character, the tenderness of the music. Closing the grand piano is only a half-solution, as this alters the sound, may make it sound dull.
On a CD, the technician can correct these issues by adjusting the volume for individual microphones. In a concert, however, the only “real” solution to me is the use of a historic instrument, i.e., a fortepiano (or a replica), such as a model by Conrad Graf (1782 – 1851). Such instruments not only offer the proper volume / dynamics, but in addition add a variety of colors, a singing tone that would even enrich the performance, and which one can never obtain from a modern piano, whatever brand.
The above outlines the main issue with this performance: it was a real pleasure and joy to observe and hear José Gallardo’s virtuosic playing. However, at the same time it was sad to note that the piano part was too oppressing, too dominant (even gross, compared to a period instrument!).
Vilde Frang played her part with incredible subtlety, very tender and soft in the initial crescendo, with inconspicuous vibrato. At the same time, she played with mastership and firmness in intonation that are rare to find. She maintained clean intonation even in the highest, whistling tones: in these 20 minutes of music, I heard maybe a single tone that wasn’t exactly spot-on.
Ignoring the above issues with dynamics, the performance “pulled me in” already with the very first bars: it’s ethereal music, heavenly touching. In this music, Schubert had left behind the need to provide “poetic program”. It’s an “absolute”, true masterwork, particularly if played as well as in this recital. I do definitely include the pianist in this: Gallardo presented a very active, living performance (only in the final segment I heard a few, minor mishaps in virtuosic passages).
There is one danger with this fantasy that I haven’t mentioned yet: it doesn’t take much for it to exhibit “lengths”: in the extreme, it may even feel boring with some artists. However, the way it was presented here, nothing could be less true than that: the interpretation was so vivid, even enthralling, full of emotional life, that the sheer thought of Schubert’s sometimes notorious “heavenly lengths” seemed totally outlandish!
Zoltán Kodály: Song Cycle “Énekszó”, op.1 – Excerpts
Next, the program offered excerpts from the Song Cycle “Énekszó”, op.1, which Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) composed 1907 – 1909. The full cycle includes 16 songs—mostly short pieces based on Hungarian folk tunes:
- “Három út előttem“ (Three ways, I may go)
- “Jöjj te hozzám“ (Come to me, my beautiful little bird)
- “Kinyílt a kalitka“ The cage is open wide)
- “Sem szántok sem vetek“ (I neither toil nor spin)
- “Isten adta kis barnája” (My delightful brown-haired girl)
- “Jaj de régen nem láttalak“ (Oh, how long it is)
- “Ha ki szépet szeret…” (He who loves a fair one…)
- “Csak aztat csudálom“ (I have alwqays wondered)
- “Vékony a pókháló” (Slender is a silk thread)
- “Azt gondolod rózsám…“ (Ah, my beloved)
- “Ne sajnáld galambom” (Don’t regret my leaving, my dove)
- “Ki-kiderül, meg beborul” (Now it’s clear, and now it’s cloudy)
- “Sohasem cselekszem” (I’ll never do again what I did)
- “Azt gondolod, hogy én bánom…“ (Do you think that I regret)
- “Tudtad, tudtad…“ (Ah, but you have always known)
- “Kötöttem bokrétát“ (I plucked a bouquet)
The artists selected the 10 songs outlined in bold in the list above.
Artists & Performance
The singer in these pieces was the same that we already heard on the previous day, the mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi (*1959). Needless to say that her vibrato was the same as in the opening concert. However, this now was Hungarian music, and this singer’s voice & timbre actually fit this music / repertoire. Very likely, Kodály was thinking of this type of voice when he wrote the cycle. I would characterize the voice as very expressive, expansive, vivid, often dramatic. She has excellent volume and good projection. In trying to describe how it sounded to me: it reminded me of recitals of Russian songs, except that the sound color (vowels) of the Hungarian language sounded brighter.
Overall, I could certainly picture performances with a more modest voice with less vibrato, but I felt that (as far as I could judge) Ildikó Komlósi captured the nature of these songs very well. Compared to a typical German “Kunstlied” (art song), these pieces are far less philosophically involved, less complex, mostly expressing day-to-day situations and emotions, as in a typical folk song. The selection of songs allowed the singer to present a wide range of expressions & emotions, from happiness to excitement to sadness, with a conciliatory ending in the last song. As already in the previous concert, the accompaniment was excellent, very competent. This time, the Hungarian pianist József Balog (*1979) played the piano part.
I didn’t have the background to really compare this performance with others. However, I feel that I received a good insight into Hungarian folk songs with this. The rhythmic applause gave an indication of the popularity of this music among the audience.
The part after the intermission opened with a short surprise performance by the violist Gareth Lubbe. He was not playing the viola, though, rather presented his own composition with overtone singing. That’s a practice that is popular with indigenous people in Eastern Asia, in parts of Europe, in South Africa, as well as with the Inuit in North America. It’s a (to us Westerners) amazing ability to make cavities in the skull resonate in overtones to a deep base tone that is sung with the normal voice, and to control the selection of overtones. What’s even more amazing is that artists such as Gareth Lubbe manage to make the overtones (often) sound louder than the base tone, and he was able to create true, even virtuosic melodies from these harmonics!
Basically, overtone singers feature two simultaneous voices (whereby of course there is a dependency of the overtone on the base tone). In this fascinating, 2 – 3 minute performance, Gareth Lubbe was very aptly accompanied and complemented to a trio (!) by the cellist László Fenyő, who we also heard in the subsequent quartet performance.
Maurice Ravel: “Ma mère l’Oye“ for Four Hands
The next position in the program was the short cycle “Ma mère l’Oye“ (“Mother Goose”) by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937). The original composition from 1910 is for piano duet. 1911, Ravel also orchestrated the cycle, creating a suite. Here, the artists performed these simple scenes from fairy tales, written for children, in an arrangement for piano / four hands. Given the simplicity of these pieces, making such an arrangement is not very difficult. There are the titles within the piano version of “Ma mère l’Oye“:
- Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of Sleeping Beauty): Lent
- Petit Poucet (Little Tom Thumb / Hop-o’-My-Thumb): Très modéré
- Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes (Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas): Mouvement de marche
- Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête (Conversation of Beauty and the Beast): Mouvement de valse très modéré
- Le jardin féerique (The Fairy Garden): Lent et grave
Artists & Performance
Both pianists in this performance we heard previously: Shai Wosner (*1976) had accompanied Ildikó Komlósi in the Brahms Lieder the day before, and József Balog (*1979), who had done the accompaniment of Kodály’s song cycle “Énekszó” in this concert, for the same singer.
Technically, these pieces present no major challenges. Shai Wosner (secondo) and József Balog (primo) offered a very atmospheric and sensitive interpretation:
- Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant: simple, pensive, forlornness in thoughts
- Petit Poucet: Little Tom Thumb running around, the small world is depicted with very high notes…
- Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes: excellent duo playing, playful (it’s not extremely virtuosic, though); I liked the Gamelan atmosphere!
- Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête: playing out the innocence of the beauty (descant) against the threat of the beast in the bass; I liked the dialog between the two characters, the feeling of fear that the beast created—and how the pieced seemed to dissolve in an open question.
- Le jardin féerique: a truly magic garden, enchanting. This gets more and more colorful and ends in a little firework. Very well-played!
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in F major, op.59/1, “Razumovsky”
For a description and discussion of the composition, I’m referring back to my earlier article with a detailed comparison of various recordings of the String Quartet No.7 in F major, op.59/1, a.k.a. “Razumovsky No.1” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Here, I’m just giving a list of the movements and their time signatures:
- Allegro, 4/4
- Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando, 3/8
- Adagio molto e mesto, 2/4 —
- Thème Russe: Allegro, 2/4
This final work of the evening was performed by the Kelemen Quartet—a formation that was founded in 2009. For this evening, the artists and their instruments were
A specialty of this ensemble is that Katalin Kokas (married to Barnabás Kelemen) and Gábor Homoki often switch positions, i.e., they both play violin and viola. Barnabás Kelemen had also been performing in the Stravinsky the night before, Katalin Kokas had been playing the viola for the Brahms Lieder in the previous concert, and both Gábor Homoki and László Fenyő had been part of the ensemble playing the Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss. Actually, Barnabás Kelemen and Katalin Kokas are the artistic directors for the Festival Academy Budapest.
The ensemble performs on prestigious instruments: Barnabas Kelemen’s violin is a Guarneri del Gesú from 1742 (“ex Dénes Kovács”), Katalin Kokas plays an instrument by Testore (Milan) from 1698, and László Fenyö’s instrument is a Mattio Goffriller from 1695. The pictures show that the violins were playing on the left, followed by the viola, and the cello on the right.
To me, the true highlight of the evening clearly was this last performance:
I received key impressions already from the first bars of the first movement: the light articulation, the mellow tone, devoid of any shrillness, the vibrato inconspicuous, natural, the excellent, “talking” agogics. When I mention the mellow tone, by no means I mean perfectly smooth and featureless—quite to the contrary! I don’t think the quartet is aiming at achieving a perfect sound: for this ensemble, expression seems to be far more important than the ultimate polish in sound. I could not agree more with this concept!
The first violin may have seemed to dominate in the first movement. However, that’s clearly just the way Beethoven composed the music. Other aspects that stood out in this performance were the perfectly seamless transition of the quaver and quaver triplet motifs between the instruments. In the second half of the movement, I also enjoyed the perfect unity of the duos of the two violins and of their counterpart, viola plus cello (OK, the former are a married couple, so one would naturally expect them to have an excellent mutual understanding?). In very general, the coordination was really excellent within this ensemble.
Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando
I found the (implicit) Scherzo just as excellent as the opening movement. This made me realize one particular feature in this ensemble: here, perfect unanimity, perfection in a unified, a perfect match in every aspect of playing is not (or not always / necessarily) a priority, maybe not even desired. My observation: in the first bars, each instrument presents itself with a short, 4-bar solo. Many quartets will try making these solos sound as much the same as possible, demonstrating discipline and uniformity.
Here, in that initial “presentation”, each of the artists was allowed to express his or her own character, temperament. Only in the course of the movement, the musicians reached a “consensus”, a “synthesis”. In particular, I noted that Katalin Kokas often appeared to be the driving force: her “introduction” (but also solos later in the movement) was the most energetic one, was a tad faster, more “pushing” than her colleagues—but not to a degree that this would have caused the impression if a divergent interpretation. It was rather that the ensemble allowed for individual expressions within the boundaries of their interpretation, making it particularly colorful, vivid.
There were other components to this: even though the base pace was fast, compared to “conventional” interpretations, the artists allowed for fairly dramatic accelerations. It almost felt as if this was derived from Hungarian folk music. Even with these distinct agogics, the quartet remained perfect in the coordination, the rapid exchange of the motifs, the transition between the voices.
Adagio molto e mesto
The above, deliberate divergence in character between the voices ended with the slow movement: here, the musicians like with a single soul, a single mind. Each member contributed to the interpretation to the same degree and with equal rights, forming those harmonious build-ups. Occasionally, maybe the vibrato was a bit on the strong side (for my taste), but it was not ubiquitous, rather used selectively. In any case, the goal didn’t seem to be perfection in the sound, but the optimum in expression and intensity. At the same time, the musicians avoided epic breadth, rather accelerating momentarily for more intensity than broadening pathetically. The quartet managed to maintain the tension even where Beethoven lets the musical flow come to a temporary halt. There were no lengths in this rather long movement—a top-class interpretation!
Thème Russe: Allegro
At the demanding pace that the musicians selected, the final Allegro with the Thème russe is an exceptional technical challenge. And again, the coordination remained excellent, even through accelerandi and the tightening of the tempo towards the devilishly difficult ending.
I should not end without mentioning that the ensemble’s instruments proved to harmonize very well. That’s in line with the musician’s excellent match in tonal quality (such as the use of vibrato, etc.): in my judgement a string quartet in the very top class, internationally!
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.