Concert “The Anchorite has Gone Back”:
Prokofiev / Shostakovich / Schubert / Poulenc

Festival Academy Budapest 2018, Day 5

Logo, Festival Academy Budapest

Budapest — 2018-07-27

4.5-star rating

2018-08-09 — Original posting

Table of Contents


This is #5 out of six postings relating to this year’s Festival Academy Budapest, running from 2018-07-23 up till 2018-07-29. For general information on the Festival Academy see my first posting. In this article, I’m writing about the concert on the evening of 2018-07-27 at Solti Hall on Day 5 of the Budapest Festival Academy, in the main building of the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music.

All pictures below are © Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved.

Festival Academy Budapest, 2018: András Bánó, presenter
András Bánó, Festival Academy presenter

The Program

Within the Festival Academy Budapest, this concert ran under the title “The Anchorite Has Gone Back”. The program featured four compositions:

Prokofiev: Sonata in C major for two violins, op.56

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) composed his Sonata in C major for two violins, op.56 in 1932, during a vacation near St.Tropez. The sonata has four movements:

  1. Andante cantabile
  2. Allegro
  3. Commodo (quasi allegretto)
  4. Allegro con brio – Più presto

Back in 2015, I have written a short posting about a recording of this sonata.

The Artists

The Performance

I. Andante cantabile

Beautiful, serene, contemplative music! The performance highlighted the clarity, the “purity in mind” of this composition! The piece is extremely critical in terms of intonation, the cleanliness of the intervals, both within the cantilenas, as well as between the voices (especially when the two voices coincide into unison!) very evident. And, if the artists—as here—don’t evade into excessive vibrato in order to “broaden the pitch” of a given tone, this only highlights the purity—or any impurities! For a CD recording, one could (and would) probably spend endless hours in cleaning up intonation details. That’s not an option in a concert performance. Nevertheless, I think that the performance of the two artists left very little to wish for!

II. Allegro

A movement that alternates between “Bartókian percussiveness” and segments with beautiful, blooming cantilenas. I enjoyed the matching sonority and articulation with the two violins. This was most evident where the two parts imitate each other. Once the interpretation gained momentum, the two artist managed to build tension in one single, dramatic arch, up to the climax at the almost abrupt ending of the movement. The intonation was very good, though one could sense the challenge: the strong dynamic contrasts don’t make this any easier!

III. Commodo (quasi allegretto)

The commodo seems to point to an all-comfy, relaxed movement. However, homely atmosphere is definitely not the first thing that came to mind with this interpretation: rather, the music seemed to express serenity, love, intimacy, purity—simply utterly beautiful!

IV. Allegro con brio – Più presto

Joy, happiness, fun, pleasure. And the dissonances are barely perceived as such. Rather, they make the purity, the beauty if the concluding intervals / major chords stand out even more. The excellent partnership between the two musicians was evident when the two voices were intertwining closely, or in how them managed to present this movement in a compelling, single dramatic arch!

Rating: ★★★★

Shostakovich: String Quartet No.8 in C minor, op.110

The presenter described the String Quartet No.8 in C minor, op.110 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) as one of the saddest, most sorrowful, depressing compositions of the entire music history. He gave a brief outline of the background. Rather than quoting the presenter, let me summarize what Wikipedia states:

Shostakovich completed this quartet in a mere three days in 1960, in Dresden, in a time when he experienced first signs of a muscular weakness (later diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and at the same time he felt compelled to giving in to joining the Communist Party. It was a time when he had suicidal thoughts. The music refers to these personal catastrophes. A clear sign for this is in the frequent occurrence of his “signature motif”, D-E♭-C-B (D-Es-C-H in German terminology, i.e., D.SCHostakowitsch). Also, the composer uses abundant quotes from others of his works, such as his Cello Concerto No.1, his Symphonies No.1, 5, 10, 15, his Violin Concerto No.1, and others.

The composition is officially dedicated to “the victims of fascism and the war”. Shostakovich’s son Maxim contradicts, stating that in reality it is “a reference to the victims of all totalitarianism”. On the other hand, the composer’s daughter Galina claims that in reality it was dedicated to the composer himself (and that the published dedication was imposed by the regime). There are even claims that Shostakovich wrote this quartet as his epitaph.

The composition features five movements, all following each other attacca:

  1. Largo —
  2. Allegro Molto —
  3. Allegretto —
  4. Largo —
  5. Largo

The Artists

The quartet was performed not by a standing quartet formation, but by four prominent artists participating in the Festival Academy:

The Performance

I. Largo —

The beginning felt both tragic and solemn. The initial DSCH motif itself establishes a sad mood. This was getting very evident with the infinitely sad cantilenas that followed: it didn’t require knowledge of the background to feel (almost) touched to tears by this music. The ensemble showed excellent control over tone quality and dynamics. They maintained perfect balance, the intonation was impeccable. I don’t know what could have been better. — ★★★★★

II. Allegro Molto —

Enthralling, dramatic, full of momentum, and with excellent coordination, virtuosic. While in the first movement, the tone quality had been virtually perfect (still of course anything but cold perfection!), here, the artists deliberately, consciously used rough, percussive articulation. This held the listener’s mind and focus in tight grip. — ★★★★

III. Allegretto —

Was this grim, obstinate sarcasm in that caricature of a waltz? Or rather rebellion against fate? Or against the composer’s adversaries, the apparatchiks in the Communist Party? Maybe hidden (or not so hidden) mockery and derision? Or was it despair, still? I liked the sonority of the viola in this movement, and the tension arch across the Allegretto. — ★★★★½

IV. Largo —

The Largo starts and ends with strong, rebelling interjections, but these cannot hide the elegiac, broad theme, indicating resignation, mourning, sadness, pain, forlornness, into which a beautiful cello cantilena appears like a voice from a world beyond.. But inexorably, the triple “beats of fate” (or beats of rebellion?) return… — ★★★★½

V. Largo

… these are followed by a final segment of infinite, touching sadness, growing again, after the music appeared to vanish into nothing. An intermediate awakening of a slow fugato with the DSCH theme might momentarily feel like signs of hope, but the last, definitive diminuendo / morendo into ppppp and below proves otherwise. A compelling performance with perfect dynamic and tonal control—very moving, touching, indeed. — ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Schubert: Allegro for Piano, 4 Hands in A minor, D.947, “Lebensstürme”

The sadness of Shostakovich’s string quartet was followed by an “end time” composition by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828): the Allegro in A minor, D.947, “Lebensstürme”, which Schubert composed 1828, in the last year of his short life. People speculated whether this was meant as the opening movement of a sonata for piano, 4 hands. What we do know is that the title “Lebensstürme” (storms of life) is not Schubert’s, but an addition by the publisher, Anton Diabelli (1781 – 1858).

The Artists

The two pianists in this performance were

Alexander Ullman took the upper (primo) part, José Gallardo played the lower (secondo) part.

The Performance

A dramatic, highly engaged performance, full of tension! It was amazing to see how the two pianists (in excellent cooperation, needless to say) managed to take the music through a decrescendo with gradual slow-down.. Yet, they did not lose any of the tension (e.g., towards the ppp in bar 89). Also, the dynamic control was excellent, the artists kept an eye on secondary voices. The playing was technically superb, with excellent coordination and tempo control also through agogics, fermatas, etc. the exposition was repeated, of course.

In the hands of these two artists, Schubert’s music was intense and dramatic, then suddenly again with very touching periods, especially through the dramatic harmonics in the development part.

As the presenter stated: even though the majority of the pieces for piano / 4 hands are meant for amateurs, this one is definitely requiring professional pianists. And indeed: even with these two excellent pianists, there were moments in the development part where the coordination was suffering a tad, was less than perfect. But the artists cleared this up again towards the end of the recap section, prior to the arrival of the coda.

Rating: ★★★½

Poulenc: Le Bal masqué, Secular Cantata on Poems by Max Jacob, FP 60

In 1932, the French composer Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963) wrote his secular cantata (cantate profane) “Le Bal masqué” (The Masked Ball), FP 60. It’s a cantata for soprano and chamber orchestra (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, violin, cello, and piano). Within the concerts that I attended in this Festival Academy, that was the only one that featured a conductor. See below for the actual artists. The cantata is based on poems by the French novelist, poet, painter and critic Max Jacob (1876 – 1944). Some people view Jacob as a precursor of Dadaism. The structure of the cantata is as follows:

  1. Préambule et air de bravoure (Preamble and bravura aria)
  2. Intermède
  3. Malvina
  4. Bagatelle
  5. La dame aveugle (The Blind Lady)
  6. Finale

The Artists

The Performance

All recordings of Poulenc’s secular cantata, that I found in a quick search, have this vocal part performed by a baritone. Here, however, it was performed by the soprano Lilly Horti, who had also been performing Tímea Dragony’s “Langrózsa” Song Cycle on (Hungarian) poems by Melinda Fellegi two days earlier.

I. Préambule et air de bravoure

Enthralling music, instrumentally, technically excellent, also in the coordination—and huge fun, needless to say! The term “air de bravoure” (bravura aria) is not what the title suggest, with challenging coloraturas, etc.—the “bravoure” rather refers to speed-talking (partly actually Sprechgesang, rather than melodious coloraturas). I wondered how Lilla Horti would manage the language. And low and behold: she deserves high respect not only for the fast talking, but equally, for how she managed the French idiom! Sure, a French high baritone singer is more poignant—but why not try something different, for a change?

II. Intermède

A short, instrumental intermezzo—expectedly in an excellent performance, technically flawless. Full of humor, then again pretending to be lyrical, if not melancholic…

III. Malvina

Full of humor, with sudden changes in mood / atmosphere. Expressive, with over-emphatic, exaggerated parody, overdrawn comedy. And again it was amazing how well Lilla Horti presented the pretended drama in the French language! French natives may claim that not all pronunciation was 100% perfect—however, who could tell in Hungary? And: I’m fairly familiar with the French language, and for me, it was way more than good enough!

IV. Bagatelle

A circus piece—not just in the caricature of a percussive piano part, but primarily through the jumping acrobatics on the violin: I’m sure Barnabás Kelemen had fun with this piece. His performance was excellent, as also that of the wind instruments, and the percussion.

V. La dame aveugle

Fun, a caricature also this—but presented with utmost professionalism.

VI. Finale

The above also applies here!

I can summarize the entire performance with superb, sublime, fun, simply excellent! Need an example for Dadaism in music? Here it is!

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

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