A MAN BEYOND CRAFT
Iván Fischer’s composer’s evening / Millenáris (revizoronline.com)
Glenn Gould once said that in his eyes, music history ended somewhere in the 18th century when performing arts became detached from composing. BY TÓTH ENDRE.
This, of course, is none other than one of the Canadian pianist’s eccentric statements, but nevertheless it points out an almost unbridgeable gap, which exists despite the fact that in the 20th century – and luckily, even today – there are artists who tried or have tried to pursue both activities simultaneously. It is almost compulsory for organists, performers with a historical spirit compose at least the cadenza by themselves, and even Gould wrote a string quartet composition and several occasional pieces, confuting that he holds with the hare and runs with the hounds. In the case of conductors, while Stokowski or Mitropoulos are best remembered as conductors, Bernstein is remembered even by laymen for West Side Story at least, and the mention of Mahler, Richard Strauss, Boulez or Péter Eötvös, in a best-case scenario, evokes both “titles” inseparably. Moreover, the latter names rank among innovative composers.
Performer-composers who are less innovative generally admit it, though some of them not so gladly – Gould for example bemoaned the fact that everything he wrote drown reminded him of Bruckner, Strauss or the early Schönberg – others with due humour or even irony. Iván Fischer belongs to the latter group, who held a composer’s evening for Budapest audiences for the first time, introducing it with the following sentences on the Festival Orchestra’s website: “Please let me emphasise that I am not a modern composer, do not expect modern music. As a performer my head is full of all types of music. Once, I decided to put down what is inside. The musical language of this cavalcade is the blend, the mix in which we live, which attacks us from the radio, from the lift, from ring tones, from concert venues. I feel I am similar to the fine artists, who collate montages from all they pick up in the streets.” Based on this, it is easy to imagine what compositions the conductor-composer produced. I formed the same opinion beforehand, but then I was pleasantly surprised, partly due to Fischer’s second sentence he uttered right at the beginning of the concert with a touch of malice: “Do not expect profound artistic experience!” But we will come back to that later.
Many people were curious about Iván Fischer’s composer evenings in the Millenáris – I can report on the second, held on 14 October – since the audience filled the two long rows of seats in opposite directions and the pile of beanbags between them extending as far as the stage, full to overflowing.
Conductor Iván Fischer is the quintessence of eclecticism. After a Kurt Weill chanson or moritat he freely turns to a baroque recitative and then to a bunch of pseudo-folk songs or a dancing schedule, which is readily followed by a grandiose orchestra part spiced with a piquant and exotic couleur locale reminiscent of late romanticism. The concert is an increasing wonder to the listener, holding them breathless. Fischer is a postmodern composer, which is also clear from his thoughts quoted above, as he defines himself as a person not exactly self-identical with a “cavalcade”, in a Freudian interpretation his music is the positive production of no knowledge with the element of intertextuality. It just lacks chiselled transitions, if there is any transition at all; in a sense, it wasn’t thought through, which questions the conscious use of the collage technique. The composition comprises “items lost and found”, and almost nothing else, which is well known from postmodern poetry and music. Its musical language appears tiled, which resembles random exercises in style in the first place, and so the profound message becomes of lesser importance – despite the fact that Fischer is of the decided opinion that it is the content, not the form that matters – and the entertaining aspect of his works stands out instead, which is mainly due to theatrical elements and theatricals.
The approximately 2-minute-long “melancholic march” with the fanfare brass and castanets, composed in 2011 at the request of the Young Euro Classic in Berlin, evoked the world of circus music, and the audience hardly noticed the “accidental bloomers” of the piece – artists of the Budapest Festival Orchestra were playing, after all. The Shudh Sarang sextet, which is based on the Indian raga and deploys a string quintet as well as the Indian tabla, is even more exciting: the viola imitating the sound of a sarangi and the contrast of the grotesque tone typical of Shostakovich’s music are quite intriguing, it was a pleasure to listen to the short, rhythmic motifs drifting through the various instruments, countervailing the melody so close to Hollywood sentimentalism. A lack of cohesion was evident, which became more severe by the fact that the string quintet and the tabla could mostly be heard separately from each other, and even the tutti was too short near the end of the composition. However, the concert brochure includes an explanation for this: the subtitle of the piece is Wanderlust, therefore “the composition wanders about all over the place, then all the memories are mixed up”. As for the Spinoza translations, the composer underlines that the musical interpretation of the old Dutch translations of the Latin texts is more like a misrepresentation, a “free association”. After the neoclassic prelude, the brief transitional section is followed by a Bourdon movement reminiscent of Sephardic music, a baroque allusion and a bit of Weill exercise in style. The music material is not original, and yet there is something impressive in it, especially due to the virtuoso solo played by Nora Fischer, daughter of the composer-conductor, who gave an outstanding performance in almost all genres in a flexible and expressive manner. Two short pieces for choir were performed by the Kobra ensemble, in which Nora Fischer is a member: in the first, La Malinconia, the choir part, resembling a madrigal, blended effectively with the flute and bass clarinet duet typical of bar music, and the audience’s attention was caught by the “witchy” drone of the Zigeunerlied, an adaptation of the Goethe poem (Gypsy Song), whose effect was magnified by the professionalism of the girls and the simple choreography. The first half ended with Iván Fischer’s 20-minute-long opera entitled Tsuchigumo (The Earth Spider), which is based on a Japanese Noh drama from the 15th century and was performed in six languages. The main objective of the collage technique, applied by Fischer along with the macaronic text, and that of the “plot” itself is to make the audience laugh. According to the story, an ill soldier is attacked by a poisonous spider disguised as a priest, but the soldier manages to wound his enemy and starts to chase it with his company before they finally murder it. Various music styles and spectacular choreography join the banal story – and the dancer Erik Bost delivered a brilliant performance in the role of the spider. The almost tarantella-like rhythm of the chase scene is a perfect punch-line, which was occasionally interrupted by the orchestra choir singing the Hungarian refrain redolent of revolutionary songs.
The second half of the composer’s evening included a longer opera, The Red Heifer, which is about the Tiszaeszlár blood libel, and based primarily on Gyúla Krúdy’s novel entitled Eszter Solymosi from Tiszaeszlár and two letters by Lajos Kossuth. The poems in the libretto were written by Lajos Parti Nagy with ingenious idiomatic playfulness, which is so characteristic of him. From the concert brochure we learn that Fischer had planned to write this opera for decades, but only recently realised this ambition when “the Tiszaeszlár Affair became a topical issue”. According to him, the same stereotypes and reflexes prevail today. As for the plot, he writes that “the topic of the opera is not the lawsuit itself, but rather the ‘spiritual mystery’ (Krúdy) of how the conjecturers of the showcase trial won 13 year-old Móric Scharf over to be their crown witness.”
After the bombastic overture and the impressive first monologue of the singing and talking Krúdy, convincingly impersonated by József Gyabronka, there was a marked contrast in the shape of a proportionately long, but very entertaining bunch of folk songs and dancing schedule, I even had a feeling I was watching one of the thematic productions of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. This piece is eclectic too, but seems to be more coherent than the previous compositions. The composer visibly builds on visceral impacts, for which he uses effective tools, including the right choice of collaborators. The drunken innkeeper’s wife, who was nicknamed after the Red Cow Inn, was impersonated by Orsolya Sáfár, who was an exquisite delicacy of the production, the way Szabolcs Thuróczy sang his wiry melodrama and song was blood-curdling, and at the trial the rap solo delivered by Jonatán Kovács in the role of Móric created some dramatic moments because of his stage performance rather than his harsh voice. Fischer’s association of ideas proved to be fantastic: he depicted the trial as a football match with fans blowing vuvuzelas. One of the most moving scenes of the opera was the monologue of Lajos Kossuth, performed by Krisztián Cser. The young opera singer played the weary and resigned character of Kossuth, who is nevertheless very authoritative in moral questions, with pathos, power and excellent acting. The final scene entitled Purification is very powerful: Móric, who recently testified, among others, against his own father, is silently sitting in front of his father on the train, whose clattering was expressed by the side drum’s perpetual ostinato (a percussionist performance similar to the one in Ravel’s Bolero). The music material may be the most exciting in this part, but after a while it unfortunately became obscured by the increasingly loud drum solo. József Scharf (Tamás Altorjay) sitting beside his son is the didactic depiction of paternal leniency. The youth choir running after the train ruined the overall effect, the play should have ended minutes before. In addition to the clattering, there is even an allusion to the finale of Strauss’s Zarathustra. Does the question regarding human nature remain unanswered forever?
Minimal scenery, minimal directing. I do not know whether Tamás Ascher and Kriszta Székely had complete freedom – perhaps they didn’t. But of course, it did not matter in this opera, symbolism proved to be sufficient. Looking back, it is quite difficult to decide whether the entertainment or artistic experience was due to the composer or rather the performers. Because the Budapest Festival Orchestra and their conductor performed brilliantly, just like a number of soloists highlighted above. This, in itself, can be regarded as a “profound artistic experience”. Even if Iván Fischer did not observe Hans Sachs’s method, the “rules of song”, he did well to occasionally take pen in hand instead of his baton during these years, since he managed to share experiences with the audience, entertaining and profound alike.