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It is seldom that after a good concert we go out to the cloakroom with the feeling that the most memorable item of the programme was a piece performed by an understudy soloist, despite the fact that this meant a change of programme. Well, this was the case in the Festival Orchestra’s concert. By János Malina (revizoronline.com)

Yet the artist who fell ill was no lightweight. Maria João Pires would have been – and hopefully will be soon – the Festival Orchestra’s guest as a soloist in Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor. But first things first. The opening piece remembered Bartók on the 68th anniversary of his death three weeks earlier. Sándor Veress’s composition entitled Threnos was transfigured into a music of sorrow for Bartók ten days before its premiere on 6 October 1945 with the subtitle “In memoriam Béla Bartók”. I do not know whether Sándor Veress intended or was able to adjust the music material of the composition during these ten days in order to make it more suitable for the occasion, but I suspect that this was not really necessary. In the months of revival following the horrors of the war, when, in the eyes of the people with good intentions, the survivors Bartók and Kodály could have been iconic emblems of the ideal of Hungarians uncompromised in any manner, a public composition written for a special occasion would have been unimaginable without their clearly recognisable tone and the folk music references of the piece. Veress accomplished the task with an air of beauty and culture: his composition is not a memorable masterpiece, but one that is worth knowing – for the music programme and the cultured performance worthy of the piece, all credit should go to the conductor of the evening, Iván Fischer, as well as the Festival Orchestra.

The actual overture of the concert was followed by a piece included as an extra in the programme by Iván Fischer, which resulted in a change of programme. As he announced, he wanted to introduce an exceptionally talented young singer to Hungarian audiences he has also known for just a few months. This was Anna Lucia Richter, who sang Mozart’s late aria beginning with Schon lacht der holde Frühling under Köchel catalogue number 580. Well, the clear and soft pastel voice of the young talent – who will also debut next year at András Schiff’s festival in Vicenza, according to her website – along with her keen sense of melody lines and lyrical presence seemed conclusive, though slight imperfections eventually emerged in her performance over time, and towards the end of the aria I felt more and more certain that her interpretation is static, even featureless. Nevertheless, Anna Lucia Richter still has all the hopes of refining her art, and her clearly outstanding talent could even lead to rapid progress.

What came next though was the star attraction: Mozart’s magical Piano Concerto in B major, K 456, performed by Dénes Várjon. I admit that I had looked forward to this perfect combination of piece and performer with a pleasant tingly feeling from the very beginning (I only heard about the change when I arrived). What I and the audience could hear was, however, beyond all expectation: it was magic, improbable and inexplicable magic, a unique moment of grace. That is why it is impossible to describe it coldly and expertly. The generous timing as well as the exact synchronicity of the performance deserve praise (in terms of all the performers). Then the strikingly clear and fresh wind chords; the perfect harmony of the piano and the orchestra; the tempo of the slow movement keeping up the usual pace with an emphasis on subtle articulation and agogic accent. And of course, Várjon’s rare quality to mingle the sensitive way of touching the keys with the complete lightness of the performance in a manner that is rather sophisticated and meticulous; enabling the heart and the brain to govern his music in heavenly harmony. But this is just stammering; we get closer to the crux of the matter by pointing out that the performance was a triumph of modesty, balance and taste, taste in the highest, Mozartian sense, which he once demanded from Clementi, an otherwise outstanding talent, in his famous remark. Well, I do not think that Dénes Várjon lacks anything in this field or at this level, moreover, this overt completeness was even reflected in the radiantly happy expression on the conductor’s and the musicians’ face.

After that, the evening veered in a completely different direction with Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor, op. 25, orchestrated by Schoenberg. There is no doubt that the orchestrated version of the early chamber music piece by Brahms, which is also quite wonderful in its own way, consisted of countless beautiful moments and a great deal of clever orchestration; this is a considerable challenge even for the finest orchestra, to which the Festival Orchestra successfully responded. In fact, Schoenberg’s orchestration is not only brilliant, but many times the atmosphere typical of Brahms’s music – late Brahms music! – also prevails as a visionary experience in the brown-autumnal colours of the opening movement or in the sighs and shudders of the third movement. But – for me – the overall effect is too heavy in the end, not to mention the unobvious nature of the genre I am listening to. Surely not chamber music or a symphony – but then what is it? (We can certainly say it was at least good enough to be ballet music for Balanchine.) The final movement in the Hungarian Gypsy music genre was nevertheless sweeping and brilliant in terms of both the orchestration and the performance. And funny at the same time, because of two things: on the one hand because there is no xylophone or any other similarly grotesque way of orchestration in the Gypsy pieces by Haydn, Schubert or Brahms; and on the other hand, while Schoenberg splashes through the mud-hole of popular music with apparent enjoyment, polishing it until it becomes even more impressive, as I recall, according to Adorno who strongly supported his ideology, the art of Stravinsky or Bartók could not be measured against that of Schoenberg because they let themselves be inspired by folk music, and were thus diverted from the aesthetically pure path.

P.S. The fact that the flyer released with the change of programme envisaged bassoons instead of basset horns in the orchestra performing the Mozart concert was surely designed only to confuse the enemy.