Festival Academy Budapest 2017, Day 4
Kodály / Enescu
Budapest, Pesti Vigadó, Grand Hall — 2017-06-13
This is the last of my concert reviews from this year’s Festival Academy Budapest. As indicated in my first report from Budapest, this academy / master classes / chamber music festival / violin competition event basically takes place at the Franz Liszt Music Academy (Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music / Liszt Ferenc Zeneművészeti Egyetem). However, as the organ in the Grand Hall of the Music Academy is being revised, the concerts after the special event in the Széchenyi Spa on 2017-06-12 were moved into an alternate location: the Grand Hall in the Pesti Vigadó.
The Vigadó is located close to the Eastern bank of the Danube. It’s a very impressive building, constructed 1859. After suffering severe damage in the Second World War, the reconstruction (faithful to the original design) took 36 years. The facade was last cleaned and restored in 2006. The Grand Hall (see the picture above) is the second-largest concert hall in Budapest. It can’t be compared to a conventional concert hall, though. It rather resembles a pompous oriental throne hall, with colonnade-clad galleries and an artfully ribbed and decorated ceiling.
Unlike shown in the picture above, for this concert, the podium was set up along the East (long) side of the hall. The seats formed a semi-circle around the podium. For those who have never seen the venue, I have added a few pictures of the venue near the bottom of this posting.
Zoltán Kodály: Sonata for Cello & Piano op.4
As this year’s Festival Academy commemorates the death of Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) 50 years ago, this program started with two of Kodály’s compositions. The first one was his Sonata for Cello & Piano op.4 (written 1909 – 1910). That sonata features just two movements:
- Adagio di molto
- Allegro con spirito — Molto adagio
The Artists, Acoustics
The musicians playing the Sonata op.4 were the Swedish-Danish cellist Andreas Brantelid (*1987) and the pianist Shai Wosner. Wosner was born in Israel (*1976) and now lives in New York (see also Wikipedia).
After the two concerts in the Grand Hall of the Franz Liszt Music Academy (2017-06-10 and 2017-06-11), my ears first needed to adapt to the acoustics of this venue—or the lack thereof. From the experience in this concert, I would claim that this venue is OK for string instruments. However, oddly, it is far from ideal for a for piano. In this sonata, the concert grand (a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial) sounded strangely muted, ill-defined (spongy). It could not play out any of its strengths. I suspect that the selection of the biggest Bösendorfer model was an attempt to defeat the acoustics of the hall. Without success, as far as I can tell.
On the other hand, the cello could really play out its full, warm tone. Brantelid played with a natural, well-sounding, not overly conspicuous vibrato. In any case, the piano was only present in this first piece. So, for the remainder of the evening, the acoustics had very little, if any negative impact. For pure string ensembles, this venue may even be near-ideal!
I. Adagio di molto
The cello solo that opens this piece made me think of the Cello Sonata in C major, op.119 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953). It felt as if 40 years later, Prokofiev had “inherited” ideas from Kodály’s piece: in these bars, the two pieces seem to resemble each other in the warm, catchy harmonics, but also in motifs and character / expression. However, the idiom changes in Kodály’s sonata: after a short, descending piano cadenza, the piano part changes character, clearly turns more virtuosic, with very fast octave parallels and short, often dry eruptions, while the cello plays rhapsodic arpeggiandi. These two roles are then switching several times, and the movement fades away softly, while the cello appears to imitate slow, deep breathing (almost deep snoring, even?), gradually calming down, falling asleep (or dying off?): wonderful music!
II. Allegro con spirito — Molto adagio
The second movement is multi-faceted and playful—and technically more demanding on the piano (Shai Wosner didn’t appear to be challenged by his part). With its frequent changes in tempo and character, this music requires musicians with an excellent mutual understanding. Also this vaguely reminded me of pieces by other composers (the Pezzo capriccioso, op.62 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1941 – 1893), maybe? Or yet again Prokofiev?). Such similarities may have been coincidental, and I did not view them as negative—rather to the contrary, as an enrichment, stimulating my fantasy.
After a descending scale in parallel octaves, the main part of the movement ends in a long fermata (explicitly annotated lunga), followed by a long general rest. Before the piano started again, hesitatingly, there were signs of starting applause: a weakness in the composition, perhaps? Kodály obviously wanted to release all tension before taking on the final part, which can easily be misunderstood in the audience. In any case, I would not attribute this “near-mishap” to the artists.
At the start of the final part, interestingly, the annotation in the piano part is vibrato (sic!). That last segment sounds / feels like from a hereafter—a response to the previous, “deceased” part of the movement. The piece ends with a recourse to the first movement, by repeating the breathing / “falling asleep” motif. Needless to say: beautiful, interesting music.
Zoltán Kodály: Duo for Violin & Cello, op.7
Also the next composition was by Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967): his Duo for Violin & Cello, op.7, which Kodály finished in 1914. This comes with three movements:
- Allegro serioso, non troppo
- Maestoso e largamente, ma non troppo lento
This duo was played by Barnabás Kelemen, violin, and László Fenyő, cello, both of which I already heard—and enjoyed—in the first concert on 2017-06-10, and also as part of the Kelemen Quartet on the following day, on 2017-06-11. No acoustics issues this time—to the contrary: I felt that the acoustics served the artists well.
To me, it immediately was obvious that the two musicians know and understand each other really well, as they acted in total emotional and musical agreement, offering an absolutely congenial interpretation and performance. The main difficulty in this music isn’t so much rhythmic coordination and timing accuracy, but a perfect balance in the rubato. The latter is inherent with Hungarian (folk) music, and so, the two musicians’ Hungarian temperament must have been a decisive advantage here.
I. Allegro serioso, non troppo
The most striking aspect of the performance in the first movement was that it demonstrated versatility and adaptability in Kelemen’s violin tone. It ranged from a rustic tone to warmth, from Hungarian expressivity to longing melancholy, up to an ethereal tone. This music is telling stories, never lets down in the tension. Also this music is very multi-faceted. Motoric pizzicati (also double and triple pizzicati) maintain the drive, and spiccato triplets create an interesting, peculiar atmosphere.
The Adagio starts discreetly, retained, but then evolves into “gypsy atmosphere”, and once more, the music shows many different faces. There are fast, deep tremolos on the cello, depicting an eery scenery. The two voices appear to illustrate a dramatic, eventful story, telling, narrative. Attractive music, definitely, in its peculiar harmonies and melodies.
III. Maestoso e largamente, ma non troppo lento
The last movement continues in this rich narrative—in its own way: again, there are many changes in tempo compounded by a rich rubato. It’s fascinating and at the same time very entertaining music. The two artists seemingly acted autonomously. They rarely needed visual / eye contact—and yet, their interpretation seemed to be from a single mold, was extremely virtuosic and really masterful!
George Enescu: Octet for Strings in C major, op.7
With the intermission, the program changed from Music by Zoltán Kodály to the Romanian composer George Enescu (1881 – 1955). Enescu completed his Octet for Strings in C major, op.7 in 1900. The work, a double quartet, i.e., an octet for four violins, two violas and two cellos, features the following four movements:
- Très modéré
- Très fougueux
- Mouvement de valse bien rythmée
The ensemble for this performance consisted of the following artists:
- violin: Vilde Frang, Gábor Homoki, Aleksey Semenenko, and Alexandre Dimcevski
- viola: Gareth Lubbe and Maxim Rysanov
- cello: Andreas Brantelid and Dóra Kokas
Wirth two exceptions, all artists had already appeared in this or in one of the first two concerts (or even in several of these). The exceptions are the French violinist (with Russian roots) Alexandre Dimcevski, and Dóra Kokas, Katalin Kokas’ younger sister, and formerly also member of the Kelemen Quartet. So, overall, this was a set of musicians with high qualifications. I was very much interested in and looking forward to this performance!
The arrangement of the musicians was not in two string quartets facing each other, but with the violins on the left, with Vilde Frang leading from the leftmost seat. Towards the right, the two violas followed, and two cellos at the right end. From left to right: Frang — Semenenko — Dimcevski — Homoki — Lubbe — Rysanov — Kokas — Kokas — Brantelid.
Already the two duo performances above were at the highest possible level—but as a music & concert experience, these were clearly surpassed by Enescu’s Octet, op.7. The interpretation made it obvious: this was a set of top-level artists of more or less the same generation—who convened with the will and the power to create top performance. Vilde Frang was in control, overall, but when her voice was pausing, she was mostly observing, maybe occasionally hinting at marking the beat with her bow. Rather, other voice leaders almost informally stepped in to lead the team. Also here, I felt that it was a congenial, engaged, focused performance. As if it were coming from a single mind, a single, unified spirit. And yet, this was not an experienced, well-established ensemble with years of common experience—amazing!
I. Très modéré
And then, there’s Enescu’s music! Already the start is very passionate, full of tension. Yes, in its temperament, there are aspects in which this octet (movement) reminds of the famous predecessor, the Octet in E♭ major, op.20 which Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) composed 1825 (aged 16). However, Enescu’s music does not feature Mendelssohn’s persistent, often nervous motorics. Instead, Enescu uses fast, stepping pizzicati to define the pace, to maintain the flow, the drive. Certainly in this interpretation / performance, Enescu’s music is very intense, glowing, extremely expressive, enthralling and absolutely dramatic. Towards the end of the movement, there are also touching, intimate aspects. Close to the end of the movement, the first violin has a melancholic solo that somehow reminded me of the slow movement (Largo) in the Symphony No.9 in E minor, op.95 by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904).
II. Très fougueux
The second movement is very resolute, but just as passionate and multi-faceted as the opening movement. There are dramatic, eruptive segments, but also an intimate, heartfelt violin solo: here, Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) came to mind. On the other hand, there are sections in this the music is as full of tension as a thriller. Certainly, the composed did not simply juxtapose these segments for entertainment purposes, but they form a sensible dramatic evolution. The tension persisted in this performance, it was growing, even across rests, up to a furious, vehement climax. Almost unexpectedly, the music then turns soft, fades away silently. There were moments in this movement, so intense—it felt as if my heart was about to stop.
Major parts of the slow movement (played attacca) are played con sordino. It’s slowly stepping music, featuring solos with wonderful, longing, melancholic melodies—never overblown, though, in this interpretation. And here again, the music remained relentless in its tension and intensity, across build-up waves, and across pp segments. To me, it was music with interesting harmonic turns—music that never seemed to release my attention! In the end, the music grows into an intense tremolo (ff)—and—again without interruption—the final movement follows.
IV. Mouvement de valse bien rythmée
As the title indicates, the last movement is a waltz—”with plenty of rhythm”. In its urge, its forward-pull and drama, this reminded me of “La valse” by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937). Enescu’s music seems just as inflated, but it dies not feature the absurd component in Ravel’s “La valse”. It’s another, enthralling piece, dramatic in its polyphony. Later, wonderful, melancholic waltz melodies are enriching the already multi-faceted, kaleidoscopic scenery. Towards the end, thunderstorm-like phases again surround a lyrical segment.
Enescu was 19 when he finished composing this octet in 1900, after 1.5 years. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s Octet sure is the splendid stroke of a genius at age 16, created within a few weeks. So, the comparison may be a little unfair—but what counts is the outcome. Enescu’s composition to me is incomparably richer, more complex, more multi-faceted—and also more mature, I think. If I had to choose, I would hesitate a second to select Enescu’s octet over Mendelssohn’s—as much as I like the latter’s work!
Needless to say that the performance was splendid, enthralling. I came with very high expectations on the performance of this composition—and Vilde Frang ands her colleagues more than met these expectations: congratulations and thanks a lot for this exciting experience! I wish there was a CD recording from this performance!
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.
I took a few pictures of modest quality, using my iPhone: