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Változatok, koncert, szimfónia a Fesztiválzenekarral

No concessions, no romanticism, only the rough, rasping, grating chords of the past ninety years. Kalevi Aho, Bartók and Prokofiev at the concert of the Festival Orchestra. By KRISTÓF CSENGERY (revizoronline.com)

Today in addition to the cautiousness of concert editors (Let’s play something popular! More popular! Even more popular!) there seems to be another trend emerging, the trend of bravery. And the signs are – at least by my experience – it’s worth it! Concerto Budapest recently surprised its season ticket holders with an entire concert dedicated to 20th century Russian music (Gubaidulina, Schnittke, Shostakovich), and they were followed soon by the Budapest Festival Orchestra with an even more radical programme: two 20th century compositions and one from the 21st century. No concessions, no romanticism, only the rough, rasping, grating chords of the past ninety years. And what happened? People came to listen to the music, and then applauded enthusiastically.

Of course, the presence of Gidon Kremer added to the lustre of the concert given by Concerto Budapest, whereas the Festival Orchestra was going to present two prominent artists from the international scene: they contracted Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the world famous apostle of the modern piano repertory to be the soloist of Piano Concerto No.1 by Bartók, and Osmo Vänskä to conduct Minea by Kalevi Aho and twelve movements of Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet. One of these plans worked, but the other fell through: Vänskä did indeed come (and he saw and conquered), but Aimard fell ill – and it was Dezső Ránki who substituted for him. Never should there be a worse substitute:  it is always a fabulous experience to immerse oneself in the piano music played by Ránki, not to mention the fact that “overhearing” the rendezvous of the 62-year-old former Kadosa-student and Piano Concerto No.1 even had a “piquant” touch. Why? Because if there was anything like a “division of labour” regarding the Bartók concertos in Hungary, then the Concerto No.1 has not at all been Ránki’s task over the past forty years. The majority of listeners associate his moderate, reserved and refined, subtle personality with Concerto No.3, which he has played as if inspired by Mozart, or with Concerto No. 2 – but that is a less convincing scenario.  However, Concerto No. 1 with its percussive manner of playing and ancient-modern rumbling and roaring has been the domain of Kocsis from the outset (he made a recording of Concertos No. 1 and 2 as early as 1972 with György Lehel for the old Béla Bartók Complete Edition). Now, we had the opportunity to listen to Ránki performing Concerto No. 1. What was it like? It was different. His rendering of the composition had its own specific character in the spirit of “To thine own self be true!”, a famous line by Polonius. The author of these lines might describe the overall impression as appealing, well-considered and convincing. Ránki played free of exaggeration, with classical wisdom, he did not demonise the concerto, did not amplify the barbarian percussion effects, but struck a balance. This was one of the most important features of his interpretation. The other was that he revealed in a nuanced, clear, transparent fashion the internal relationships and links of this composition with a complex intrinsic texture and logic. This was obvious right in the opening movement, which was followed by the experience of the high-brow dialogue between the piano and the percussions in the Andante, and the conclusion the Allegro molto finale inspired, namely that it is not strawberry yoghurt that flows in Ránki’s veins: his solos in the closing movement were full of overwhelming momentum, energy and burning passion.

The BFO percussionists


performed wonders in the Bartók concerto – but not only in that one. By chance, all the three compositions on the programme provided a plethora of opportunities for the percussionists to show their skills. The Bartók piece was preceded by Minea (2008) composed by the contemporary Finnish composer Kalevi Aho (1949). The premier of this piece in Hungary was also made memorable by brilliant percussion effects. The composition was commissioned by Osmo Vänskä, who conducted the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra at the premiere in 2009. For those who were not there, the modernity of this music is not comparable to new Hungarian music we know from Szőllősy, Kurtág and Eötvös – we should not think of uncompromising contemporary music represented by the mentioned composers and their works. Neither should we identify this music with pure neoromanticism or other eclectic retro-music. Over the past few decades a mixed style has emerged which blends the characteristics of the afore-mentioned two schools in an artful and highly professional manner, resulting in a hybrid sound, sufficiently crude and rough not to be accused of making compromises, and at the same time it is appealing, engaging and consumable. In addition, the composition of Kalevi Aho is magnificently structured with an effective dramaturgy and written at the highest professional standards. The single-movement piece is neither long nor short (18 minutes), it definitely makes an impact on the audience, uses mostly the winds as melodic instruments, while strings constitute the patchy background. The process is clearly built up from various stages, two rounds of intensification lead up to the outcome, with the crushing rhythm and dynamism of percussions. Minea is a piece of contemporary music, uncompromising and yet capable of scoring a success. And it did.

Osmo Vänskä conducted the music of Kalevi Aho with such ease, as if he was tinkering about in his own living room. And his conducting of the two other pieces of the programme reflected the highest degree of certainty. A great conductor, an outstanding figure, the pride of the legendary Finnish school of Jorma Panula (1930). The same school produced names such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari Oramo, or Olari Elts, who also made a successful appearance in Hungary. One conductor is more brilliant than the other, perhaps Salonen is the best of them all (incidentally, Barnabás Kelemen was also a student of Panula and Leif Segerstam as a conductor). Former clarinet player Vänskä is an artist with a factual, utterly precise, clear conducting technique, not a conductor-demon or a dandy, but a musician with a logical mindset. He is a responsible professional, who does not play to the gallery but communicates in a useful and inspiring, stimulating manner, with a perfect knowledge of the music he conducts and fully identifying with musical processes. And the outcome is amazing. He tamed and fed the Festival Orchestra out of his hand, they did their best playing the Kalevi Aho piece with a natural flow as if it had been on their repertory for decades. After the intermission the orchestra performed movements of Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet expressing wildness, harsh colours, and refined effects of chamber music, drama and visuality in a way that convinced even those not sympathising with Sergei Sergeevich of the exceptional qualities of the composition.