Piano notes

Going Hungary Again: the Second Kaposvár International Chamber Music Festival

DistlerMon 15th August 2011

Brahms, Prokofiev, Schubert and Bartók

Here I am again this summer in the small Hungarian city of Kaposvár, located in Southern Transdanubia, about midway between Lake Balaton and the Croation border, and about two hours or so from Budapest by car. For chamber music lovers, the sheer concentration of talent and wide range of works offered at the Second Kaposvár International Chamber Music Festival (held between August 12th and August 20th) seems well worth the journey.

Last year the picturesque Szivárvány Music Hall had been closed due to flooding. Happily, the festival’s primary venue is back in working order. It’s a lovely facility, with comfortable seats, a modest, pleasant snack bar and easy to access rest rooms. The ideal acoustics allow even the softest, most nuanced solo string playing to register no matter where you sit, while loud passages fill the room without overpowering the listener.

Having been delayed on Friday August 12th with a busload of fellow journalists and musicians, I had to miss most of the Brahms First Sextet on the opening event, yet was delighted to catch Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf characterfully served up by a small chamber orchestra (the solo clarinet and bassoon players clearly had the most fun), led by Zoltán Kocsis, who initiated the concert at the piano with violinist Barnabás Kelemen in virile, emphatically accented performances of three Kreisler transcriptions.

After strong wake-up double espresso, I made the less than one-minute walk over to Szivárvány in my sleep-deprived, jetlagged state from my spacious room at the Hotel Kapos in time for Saturday morning’s concert. I might have well still been asleep, for the opening work, Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro sounded like a heavenly dream, from the buttery, sensuous flute and clarinet duet at the start to the gorgeous synchronicity of the unison muted strings and Andrea Vigh’s well-contoured extensive harp cadenza.

Kocsis returned to provide a solid, bedrock foundation (clear lines, not watery chords) from which Katalin Kokas’ small-toned yet expressively specific rendition of the Debussy Violin Sonata could flourish. Dvorák’s Bagatelles Op. 47 featured joyful élan and striking dynamic contrasts from violinists Alina Pogostkina and József Lendvay, as the extremely talented festival cellist mainstay Nicolas Altstaedt darted in and out with supple pizzicato lines. If Benjámin Perényi’s did not predominate, it was because the original harmonium part’s sustained sonorities and peculiar timbre gets somewhat lost in translation when played on the concert grand.

During intermission I caught up with Kocsis and with the distinguished veteran Hungarian pianist Peter Frankl, and aired my misgivings about the house Steinway’s lack of power and monochrome tone quality. Even with the lid open during the second half Dvorák “Dumky” trio, it was obvious that Péter Nagy was working overtime to compensate, despite his breathtaking unison runs and easy navigation of the work’s endless tempo shifts. For her part, Kokas’ tone considerably opened up, especially with her penetrating vibrato on the G string, while Altstaedt was his usual radar-responsive, ever-supple self. The audience didn’t want to let the performers go, but their insistent rhythmic applause did not induce an encore.

Pop and traditional music concerts take place on a well-appointed bandstand set up near the theatre and the town square across from my hotel. No sooner did I fall into a deep midday sleep than a traditional gypsy brass band awakened me an hour later. Much as I wanted to remain in bed, Schubert’s sublime C Major String Quintet D. 956 beckoned for the evening concert’s first half. Nicolas Alstaedt and Katalin Kokas were back, along with first cellist Dóra Kokas, violist Maxim Rysanov and first violinist Alina Ibragimova (her Hyperion recording of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas received top recommendation in a recent Gramophone survey of the work on disc). The long first movement, with exposition repeat intact, unfolded briskly yet with flexible, songful phrasing – Rysanov’s shaping of the second subject during the recapitulation made me wonder if his viola had lungs. The slow movement seemed to play itself with the calmest repose and simplicity, as if no interpretive intervention was happening at all. In the Scherzo’s outer sections, the musicians consistently articulated the opening upbeat legato and its reiteration detached (not everyone does this), while the second cello/viola and first cello/first violin duos in the Trio were matched to a proverbial tee. Here the hushed, sustained chords generated palpable tension, although similar passages in the finale seemed too arch and studied for what the music’s unbuttoned yet steady momentum is about, along with the slightly mannered tenutos. Still, the ensemble’s control and sense of unanimity was all the more astonishing for a pick-up group who tackled this masterpiece with minimum rehearsal.

For the second all-Bartók half, the composer’s Roumanian Folk Dances and Second Rhapsody were interspersed with authentic gypsy renditions of the work’s original folk songs by the string trio Jánosi Együttes. Violinist Eszter Perényi played the Folks Dances with just the right idiomatic spirit (despite some difficulties with passages in harmonics) supported by Barnabás Kelemen at the piano. Afterwards Keleman picked up his violin and journeyed through the Second Rhapsody like a captain charting familiar, beloved waters with all the expertise of an experienced seaman who has never lost his youthful enthusiasm for navigating exotic ports of call. Peter Nagy commanded the no-less-challenging piano part with equal aplomb, despite the instrument’s aforementioned limitations.

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