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On a mid-October weekend the musicians of the Festival Orchestra dedicated an evening to the memory of Georg Solti, born a hundred years ago. BY LÁSZLÓ KOLOZSI

The program did not feature the pieces preferred by the conductor, the ones that he often conducted when in Hungary. So, we could even say it was not the program but the quality of performance that the orchestra paid tribute with to the memory of the maestro leading them to the highest peaks in the realm of music.

The concert was preceded by a short discussion, a prologue about Solti, as the Festival Orchestra had the privilege to work together with one of the most outstanding opera conductors of the last century on several occasions, and they produced his last record together. The musicians told anecdotes and were somewhat overcome by memories and feelings, they remembered their shared experiences with great enthusiasm. The concise instructions of Solti focusing on the essence, i.e. the notes, were the manifestation of a demanding, stern, introvert and energetic character, a perfectionist, never lenient on himself.

The music director of the orchestra, Iván Fischer, also attaches primary importance to what is in the partiture: he demands the highest level of fidelity to the score. Especially when conducting the compositions of those he holds in the utmost respect. However, as a person, Fischer seems to be completely different from the introvert Solti, no matter what we listen to: his short pre-concert video-messages, his Midnight Music concerts or the evening dedicated to the memory of Solti. While Solti is choleric, the current maestro of the Festival Orchestra is rather sanguine as regards his temperament. From all the above it follows that the compositional oeuvre of Ernő Dohnányi, who occasionally qualifies as a rambling superficial virtuoso, fits Iván Fischer much better than Solti, who – when having a choice – rarely chose to conduct Dohnányi, his often dissolute former master. His discography features only one composition by Dohnányi, namely Variations on a Nursery Song (Decca, 1990 with András Schiff), and he preferred recording Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 several times to recording Symphony No. 8, the less popular masterpiece.

So, how could this concert on 14 October evoke the spirit of the legendary maestro? The answer is the title of a collection of recordings by Sir Georg: charisma and vitality. Fischer had the orchestra play Variations and its quasi antecedent Symphonic Moments in a unique fashion, but not for its own sake: the orchestra did not amplify the humorous features of the pieces, but played them as serious compositions thereby creating a humorous effect.

The grandioso performance of both pieces showed that Dohnányi never goes beyond the limits of turn-of-the-century Romanticism, he has a strong liking for bombastic, robust finales, but it seems that these finales serve as the ultimate sources of self-irony, a genuine laughing matter for him. As Aladár Tóth also put it: basically Dohnányi is a reproductive artist, which means on the one hand that he is more remarkable as a performing artist than as a composer, and on the other hand he is most powerful as a composer when imitating, parodying others, composing in their styles. His Festival Overture played in the company of masterpieces by Kodály and Bartók is forgettable, but the more buoyant and admittedly less ambitious Symphonic Moments is more appealing. Especially when played by Fischer’s orchestra: the vigorous swoosh of the woodwinds in Capriccio, the slightly gloomy, touching opening of the Rhapsody, the shining, magnificent brass in the Scherzo, its vivacious, harsh sounds were a memorable, lasting experience.

However, it was Variations with its overwhelming power that was the worthiest of the genius of the maestro: its dark, poignant opening cast the suspicion that the composer had the intention to outdo Beethoven, and the entering of Dénes Várjon playing the melody of Twinkle, twinkle little star brought about audible and tangible relief. Várjon’s preeminent performance of the runs and neck-breaking rushes of the next movement, his colourful and lively rendering of this silly parody which showed the humour as well as the seriousness of the piece would be difficult to outperform today. As regards the Festival Orchestra, it was the winds that showed an extraordinary performance this evening.

Many orchestras tend to interpret this composition as the parody of the outstanding composers of Romanticism, which goes beyond parody and shows the sign of boastfulness on the part of Dohnányi, as if he was saying: look how good I am at it, I can even imitate Brahms or Schumann. One of the greatest surprises from Fischer and the orchestra was a completely unorthodox interpretation: they treated the piece as a whole, not splitting it into blocks of imitated composers, but performing it as a magnificent piano concerto, rich in form and comparable at least to Beethoven’s no. 5.

Glenn Gould – who said that this was the only valuable piano concerto – might not have liked the performance as it did not aim to ridicule form, to show its useless and meaningless character. In variation no. 5. the music evoking the sounds of a carillon was full of nostalgia, the next movement, the Viennese Waltz written in the rhythm of Richard Strauss’s sorrowful waltzes (not the light ones!) aroused the desire for the Vienna of the glorious past, with fiacres, horse-drawn carriages in her streets. The choral tune of variation 11 is extremely sombre and robust. Even the second movement of Dvorak’s superb symphony, depicting an old castle, was brighter.

The last performance closing the first part was that of Dénes Várjon – proving again to be of the best pianists of his generation – playing a short piece (most probably) by Dohnányi. The Variations provided an excellent opportunity for Várjon, which he seized: playing several composers such as Brahms, Schumann and Liszt parodied by Dohnányi. His playing is clear, fresh, his touch firm. His latest Liszt recording with ECM (especially the Sonata in H-minor) as well as this concert was proof of the fact that he measures up to the formidable talents of the previous generation, such as Ránki and Kocsis.

After the interval came Dvorák’s symphony which due to its picturesque narrative, intimacy and visual power is often compared to Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6. After a deep, heartfelt sigh of the cellos they started the nostalgic first movement. The strings introducing the theme of wandering about in the old castle were sullen rather than solemn: this movement together with several other movements of the more frivolous Dohnányi composition created the impression of incidental music, the soundtrack of a Hitchcock movie, a melodrama disguised as a thriller. The scherzo was also like a soundtrack:  concise and powerful. At the end of the concert the MÜPA audiences once again had good reason to applaud the winds.

Perhaps there were few trying to imagine how Georg Solti, born a century ago, would have conducted these pieces, but there must have been a great many who might have thought that this evening was a dignified celebration of the 100th anniversary of one of the most outstanding Hungarian conductors.