A musical feast in Hungary

DistlerTue 17th August 2010

The Kaposvár International Chamber Music Festival - Part 2

One would think that last night's thunderstorm would have cooled off downtown Kaposvár this morning, but it's quite hot and not too comfortable in my unmemorable, non-air conditioned (but clean) room in the Hotel Kapos. I wound up watching the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day dubbed in Hungarian on television before falling asleep around 3.30am. I'm up by 8am for a good continental breakfast (the black coffee is the best part, and, boy, did I need it!).

It's a short walk to the Reformed Church in Kossuth Lajos Street, where the 11am concert got off to a late start. It turned out that the event was over subscribed, and every area of the church had to be used to accommodate more patrons than the venue could safely handle. Although Zoltán Kocsis has been concentrating more on conducting these days, he remains an extraordinary pianistic presence. He and his onetime piano professor Ferenc Rados opened the program with Schubert's F Minor Fantasy. From what I understood from the producers, this was Rados's first public appearance in 25 years, yet he commanded the secondo part with ease and security, notably within the final pages's thornier thickets. He pedaled either sparingly or not at all, achieving subtle legato nuances through fingers alone, although he largely contained his dynamics within a mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte comfort zone. By contrast, Kocsis cannot help but dig deep into the keys, and he often overpowered Rados in passages where one would have liked more spacious contrapuntal interplay, as well as clearer-cut tempo relationships between the composition's sections. That said, the performance grew more centered and relaxed as it progressed.

Kocsis's frighteningly proficient and scrupulous projection of the Beethoven Kreutzer sonata's piano part featured explosive dynamic contrasts, multi-colored trills, and staggeringly accurate runs at near breakneck tempi. Even with the piano lid open at half-stick, the palpable impact of his sonority unwittingly pulled focus from Joshua Bell's impeccable fiddling. However, the ebb and flow of the final slow movement variation's rubato and astutely gauged harmonic underpinnings revealed a true meeting of minds and ears between these world-class musicians. Not even a break between the first and second movements to accommodate the automatically timed church bells broke the spell.

Anything would be an anticlimax after that, especially Enescu's early, rambling C Major String Octet Op. 7. Still, the superb ensemble (violinists Gábor Homoki and Katalin Kokas who is the festival's artistic director, Kálman Dráfi and Oszkár Varga, violists Barnabás Kelemen and Kata Borsos, celiists Ditta Rohmann and Dóra Kokas) navigated the composer's difficult-to-balance textures with all the coloristic variety and nuance they could muster. In particular, Kelemen's agility and concentration helped make the most of his haunting viola solos.

After a good lunch and much needed rest, I ambled back to the church for the 7pm concert, dreading the prospect of another packed house, another uncomfortable seat, another late start, no air conditioning, and no windows open. Alas, my fears came true, but at least I got to hear Ohad Ben-Ari's breathtaking chamber transcription of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun, for string quartet, harp, horn, clarinet, and, of course, flute soloist (Kocsis stepped in as the unannounced conductor). Both here and in Schumann's A Major Romance Op. 94 No. 2 flute soloist Béla Drahos experienced intonation problems I've never heard from this usually exacting artist. I think it must have been the heat and humidity, which also may have accounted for similar rough patches that Mr. Bell, Mr. Kelemen and the Kakos siblings faced during the Dvorák Quintet's Scherzo and Finale. Back at the piano, Mr. Rados fared best in the slow movement, spinning out gorgeous phrases that seemed to float from his instrument into the atmosphere, blissfully oblivious to bar lines. The finale's fughetta revealingly showcases each player's individual timbral profile, and it was fascinating how Bell's suave, rounded tone contrasted with Kelemen's less elegant but more forceful and varied projection (imagine Heifetz and Szigeti on the same bandstand, and you'll get what I mean!).

Britten's faux-Impressionist Quatre Chansons Françaises closed the first half, where Pál Mácsai recited Hungarian translations of the text prior to each song, sung by soprano Eszter Wierdi, who was sensitively accompanied by Péter Oberfrank. José Gallardo's brief appearances supporting Drahos in the aforementioned Schumann and Bell's sexy shaping of Debussy's The Girl with the Flaxen Hair must not go unmentioned.

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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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