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The Palace of Arts and the Budapest Festival Orchestra have launched a new series entitled Bridging Europe. On the first occasion, Czech culture came under the spotlight, and a number of events helped people learn about the country. I attended three classical music concerts, Dvořák’s Requiem, a Baroque evening and one that presented contemporary music and musicians (papiruszportal.hu)

Dvořák’s Requiem (Op. 89.), ordered from England and which premiered in 1891, is rarely heard, since apart from death masses composed by Mozart and Verdi seventeen years earlier, other composers’ pieces written in this genre are not or rarely performed. Dvořák’s work with its impressive and meditative movements and passages was written for concert hall performances. The characteristic nature and motto of Requiem is the four-score curl motif bending into itself, which suffuses the piece. The ecclesiastical composition of Dvořák (who was the highlighted composer of the festival) is exceptionally beautiful, and it was worth including a composition in the programme that presents a different face of the composer.

Requiem conducted by Iván Fischer was performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic Choir and four solo singers in the National Concert Hall on the rich and fine evening of 13 September. The soprano solo was sung by Juliane Banse, who was previously a guest of the Festival Orchestra in two Mozart operas. This time Banse inspired less feelings in the listener, she occasionally had intonation problems (for instance during the passage beginning with Quid sum miser), and this uncertainty diluted her musical solutions considerably. It seemed that her voice was not shining the way it used to, she was maybe suffering from a cold. Jolana Fogašová was very good, her tone is beautiful, and her musical touches, such as the Tuba mirum passage and the orchestras, were among the great moments of the performance. Peter Berger sang on a fail-safe principle, but his voice radiated a gift for opera singing. Ecclesiastical compositions require a completely different form of expression, it is therefore not a coincidence that the number of those who maintain the same standards in their singing in both roles is small. I would gladly listen to Berger in a romantic opera, but there were nice details in Requiem too; for example, the passage beginning with Judex ergo sum sedebit. We can have no complaint about Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester’s singing either. The register of his part is not too voluminous, so it is difficult to express a firm opinion about him.

The Czech Philharmonic Choir is an excellent ensemble (choirmaster: Petr Fiala), and they possibly received the loudest applause. Dvořák did not opt for chorus lines and other movements in his work; consequently, the choir played a prominent role, which was not easy. Both the women’s and the men’s choir performed brilliantly with their homogeneous sound and sensitive dynamics. The Festival Orchestra again played at a high standard in this concert. The audience was lucky to hear a fine and rich performance, and it would be worth keeping it on the programme, allowing it to mature.

Some years ago, the members of the Festival Orchestra even founded an ensemble performing Baroque music; they bought instruments and have since invited prominent conductors and performers to play in early music concerts. Although it takes plenty of time for a new orchestra to play smoothly together, the Festival Orchestra’s concert on 18 September in the Festival Theatre indicates that they are definitely on the right track with settling into a routine regarding early music performances. The compilation of the programme was very selective with regard to both the composers (three of them are from the Benda family) and the diverse genres.

As it transpired in the quality concert brochure, Harmonia Romana, a suite by Pavel Josef Vejvanovský or perhaps somebody else, was played first. This composition, which also involves a solo violin in some movements, is quite interesting, and lacks any ingenious master or composer solution. The solo played by János Pilz – sometimes in a slight hurry – was characterised by inaccuracies and accidental bowings. Dominique Labelle sang two arias from Jan Dismas Zelenka’s oratory entitled Sub Olea Pacis. The first movement (Ave Deus recondite) had a touching beauty, and so had the performance, which was the highlight of the concert. The second bravura aria by Jiří Antonín Benda was performed after the interval, when the soprano appeared in period costume on stage, spicing the performance with Baroque gestures. The performance delivered by Dominique Labelle held the audience spellbound.

Zelenka’s Capriccio no. 5 is an exciting piece, in which the characters of the movement, the robust rhythm or the rustic vehemence in the second Vilanilla movement, are given due prominence. The trio of the woods as well as the major-minor passage in the final movement resembling Sturm und Drang was well-formed in the second minuet.

Jan Jiří Benda’s Violin Concerto in G major is another work that might have been composed by somebody else, but nevertheless very interesting, since it is a kind of report on the musical style of a given period, on everyday music once composed hastily. The solo of the three-movement concerto seemed agitated this time as well, the faint sounds in the opening movement often trailed away, the tempo of the solo increased, and even a brief confusion of memories arose before the recapitulation, not to mention the separation of the fast movements’ forms, which I found insufficient. The cantilena of the slow movement could have been even more trickling.

The three-movement symphony (in D major) by František Benda, which ended the concert, was performed excellently, this composition might be the finest piece of music included in the programme. The symphony, which incorporates the characteristics of Baroque music into the new features of style and form, was sparkling. The performers interpreted the composition with great passion.

The conductor was the renowned Nicholas McGegan, whose music expertise and engaging personality shone out equally. He is at home in early music, and he was able to fully share his ideas with the orchestra. The role of conductor was performed by a great artist.

Contemporary pieces are relatively rare in music programmes, particularly rare if the programme comprises such compositions only, and extremely rare if composers of a foreign country are included. On 19 September, five Czech contemporary compositions were performed in the Festival Theatre.

Michal Nejtek’s piece entitled “…your heart stops, you continue writing” is a reflection on two lines from Raymond Carver’s poem Your Dog Dies. “I do not have the faintest idea what it is, what it meant to be, or what it expresses…” – wrote the composer. The composition is a play with colours, it goes around individual sounds just like in a rondo theme, and at other times, the tone resembles the atmosphere of fairgrounds: it is shrill and flippant. The slow passage starts beautifully, including both dreamlike images and the lyrics. The ending may not have fitted into the overall piece.

Rush Hour in Celestial Streets by Martin Smolka, who was born in 1959, was inspired by the sound of an out-of-tune piano that had not been used for 30 years. Smolka made a good job of expressing moods, references and reflections, and even the structure of the composition – with the climax roughly in the middle – was elaborate. Again, this piece created exciting moments with the individual sounds as a means of expression. The finale was silence per se, expressed by music.

Born in 1980, Slavomír Hořínka composed Shirei ahava (Love songs) in 2004, which is a checkered and colourful piece, including the impacts of world music, a fanfare of trumpets, and a solemn passage for a string quartet in addition to its intimate finale with softer orchestration. According to the artist, he composes music for the sake of his own happiness. Shirei ahava pays tribute to love. The conductor of the evening, who compèred the pieces, revealed that Hořínka put pen to paper and composed Love songs at the time when he was meeting his then future wife, and now they have four children.

The second part of the concert included two compositions that incorporate electroacoustic sounds as well (this type of approach has already run its course, only a few contemporary pieces make use of it). Ondrej Adámek’s Ça tourne ça bloque, which was composed in 2007 and 2008, blends together the musical characteristics of Japanese and French lyrics and the different tones of speech. In the rhythmical composition the interaction of lyrics and music is quite interesting, and is not for its own sake. The decisive relationship of lyrics and music can also be found in many Hungarian pieces, such as Eötvös’s.

Petr Wajsar drew inspiration from Claudel’s philosophical “fan” poems for the lyrics of 8 Sentences on Fans, in which the instrumental scheme evokes Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. The composer is also a member of a nu jazz band, yet his piece mentioned above bears no trace of pop music. The sounds of nature could be detected in the music, it was an exciting and fine composition.

The Festival Orchestra ensemble was conducted by Peter Vrábel, who is at home in contemporary music, and so had a lot to say about the pieces. Not only did he deal with the succession of the sounds, he also gave something more that is essential to a great concert, and this does not always happen with contemporary music.

All in all, it was a rich and thoughtful concert. Although there were no new discoveries, the audience grew closer to Czech music, despite the lack of Czech peculiarities.