A musical feast in Hungary

DistlerMon 16th August 2010

The Kaposvár International Chamber Music Festival - Part 1

Rural landscaping and farmland mainly dominate the scenery throughout our two hour drive southwest from the Budapest Airport to the small city of Kaposvár (located in Southern Transdanubia, about midway between Lake Balaton and the Croation border), where an ambitious and broad-ranging chamber music festival is about to launch on Friday August 13th. I haven’t slept in 24 hours, yet am wide awake in animated conversation in the back of a comfortable rented taxi with Festival Director György Bolyki, whose excellent English compensates for my ridiculously elementary Hungarian. He fields mobile phone calls every few minutes to deal with last minute problems and loose ends, yet is never less than relaxed and super-friendly.

When we arrive at my hotel across from the town square, I have less than an hour to shave and shower before I need to start walking towards the train station, over to the venerable and remarkably well-preserved Theatre Csiky Gergely for the opening concert at 7PM. Actors in tuxedos and white gloves greet ticket holders with a flourish, and I take my seat in a small yet comfortable box.

For the first half, violinist Joshua Bell took first chair among mostly Hungarian colleagues for one of the most congenial and joyfully characterized performances of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat, Op 20 that I’ve ever heard in concert. The outer movements boasted pinpointed motivic repartee between the players that managed to sound rigoroursly worked out yet thoroughly spontaneous at the same time, especially in the first movement development section’s conversation pizzicatos, along with Bell’s delicious, deliberately old-fashioned string slides in slow, sustained passages. Of the two cellists, Jonathan Cohen commanded special attention for his supple bow arm in the finale’s most thankless runs and how the richness of his tone often provided an anchoring influence. In response to the audience’s enthusiastic rhythmic clapping, the ensemble reprised the third movement, and played it with even more lightness and rhythmic élan the second time around.

Unlike many pianists who take up the baton, Zoltán Kocsis is a real conductor. He led a crackerjack ensemble through Stravinky’s L’Histoire du Soldat on the concert’s second half, with actor Pál Mácsai reading a new Hungarian translation in which he assumed all of the roles by brilliantly modulating his voice to humorous effect. Choreographer Zoltán Fodor provided tasteful and thoughtfully staged movement for three respective pairs in the Tango, Waltz and Ragtime sections. Kocsis’ seamless transitions and spot-on tempos kept the piece moving in a forward and inevitable manner. I was especially glad to hear violinist Barnabás Kelemen for the first time in person (I love his gutsy, fearless Bártók Solo Sonata on the BMC label), and how he delineated solo and accompanimental material purely by nuance and attack. The notorious trumpet arabesques shook from Bence Horváth’s trumpet like leaves from branches in a gentle wind, while Zoltán Rácz’s percussion solos stood out for their intelligent dynamic scaling and timbral variety.

Neither a thunderstorm in the background nor two or three split-second power outages could faze the performners’ concentration and the audience’s fervent response. Obviously the power is on, otherwise I wouldn’t be typing this missive on my laptop at 2AM, with fragments of Mendelssohn and Stravinsky coming back to haunt me and keep me from going to sleep.

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Distler

Composer, pianist, concert presenter and Gramophone contributor Jed Distler looks back, present and forward about the piano in our lives, and the lives of the piano.

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