“WE SHOULD GO TO DEBRECEN” – THE FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA IN PÉCS
On the first weekend of February, audiences in the Kodály Centre in Pécs had the privilege to hear two outstanding concerts, one by the Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra of Debrecen with Dániel Somogyi-Tóth, which was a good basis for comparison with the symphonic orchestra of Pécs, and the other by the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy, unforgettable magic, comparable only to the greatest orchestras of the world. The outcome of the first comparison was almost a "draw", whereas in the latter we witnessed "the triumph of superb quality".
I deemed the performance of the orchestra from Debrecen comparable to that of the orchestra in Pécs, and I am compelled, for the second time, to compare the quality of the performance of the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy to the greatest orchestras. The concert on 4 February in the Kodály Centre was one of the ten best concerts I have ever heard, the musical culture of the Budapest Festival Orchestra as a whole was a revelation, unbelievable and perfect, from the very first moment until the very last. The key to this success was the personality of the conductor, Gábor Takács-Nagy, who meticulously elaborated each and every measure of all the pieces on the programme, which must have been demanding for the enthusiastic musicians of the orchestra, who, however, obviously did not mind this extra work. This enthusiastic and joyful playing together with utmost professionalism was the greatest merit of the concert! Of course, all this would not have been possible without the musical thoughts and ideas that made not only the Mendelssohn piece, premiered in Pécs, but also Haydn, Cesar Franck or Schumann sound new, authentic and credible as never before, not even on recordings. And I am not the only one who thought so. Because at least 90% of the concert was so perfect that it was fit for recording.
Haydn’s “Kettledrum” Symphony in G major was played in such a brisk and yet not hurried tempo, which is customary in the case of early music ensembles, but the sound of natural horns and trumpets is also such a feature in the case of grand symphonic orchestras, mostly if they perform so perfectly. The woods of Haydn’s orchestra were seated in front of the first seats of the strings, later we learnt that this was the brilliant idea of Takács-Nagy, and this seating made even better use of the fine acoustic qualities of the concert hall. The two excellent oboists and the first flutist created a magic atmosphere with their magnificent performance under the baton of Takács-Nagy. However, for the sake of fairness, we have to acknowledge that the second flutist and the two bassoon players also proved their talent in the other pieces on the programme as well. We can describe the performance of the timpanist only in superlatives, not only in the famous second movement but in the “shocking” finale as well, which was presumably “authorised” by the conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy. This instrument, the timpani, is key as the source of inspiration for the English title of the symphony, which is called “Surprise”. The strings gave a virtuoso and refined performance, outstanding were the sensual beauty of violins, first and second alike, we can also praise the viola section, and the cellos which together with the double basses placed as usual in the centre of the orchestra, produced a soft, shining sound, a rarity indeed. Gábor Takács-Nagy magnificently accentuated the main characteristic features of the movements, of which I would highlight the Menuette characterised by the duality of Haydn’s “husky” humour and rococo grace. The finale with its exuberance and liveliness also conveyed extra-musical, human messages. One thing is for sure: if the 5000 students regularly attending concerts in Pécs had heard the Festival Orchestra as part of their extra-curricular activities, they would have fallen in love forever not only with Haydn but also with classical music per se.
The second piece of the concert was the premiere in Pécs of a wonderfully sounding instrument, the basset horn. Mendelssohn composed his Concerto in F minor for clarinet and basset horn in 1832. In spite of its name, the basset horn belongs to the family of clarinets, as Carl Baermann, the son of Heinrich Joseph Baermann, the greatest clarinet player of the time inspiring many of Weber’s concertos, mastered this particular instrument. Well, what we heard from the two great musicians, Ákos Ács, clarinet and Ákos Pápai, basset horn, was the most tremendous “cultural orgasm” music can cause. I hope that this term first used by a musician from Pécs will not offend the two artists, whose performance was unbelievably rich in terms of dynamics and expression. The soft, sensuous, warm and deep tone of the basset horn, which in this respect is different from the also extraordinary bass clarinet, wonderfully embraced the higher regions of the clarinet and on several occasions contributed very nicely to these regions itself. The breathtaking climax of the performance was the “magical sound” of the two instruments playing together, overwhelmingly and with a sweeping virtuosity in the first and last fast movement as well as in the fascinatingly refined slow movement. The Festival Orchestra joined in mostly in the third movement as an equal partner. We can only regret that later no other pieces were composed for the fantastic duo of these two instruments, and it is only in the opera music of Mozart and Richard Strauss that we can enjoy them, if a basset horn is available.
The next surprise in the first half of the concert was the extraordinary performance of Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations, composed in 1885, in the period of late-Romanticism. The performance was in a perfect harmony with the style of the pieces before that, and it took only a few more musicians to meet the greater volume requirements of the symphony. To tell the truth, they enchanted us again with the delicate sound that characterised mostly the strings. Outstanding were the cello section and the solo cellist whose chamber music with the piano reminded us for a few seconds of the Liszt Piano Concerto in A major. The violins also played nicely, though it was at this point that I heard some less “genuine”, more feeble sounds played by them, which would have gone “unheard” in a mediocre orchestra. The woods, the brasses, mostly the horns with their soft, clear and expressive tone lifted us into ethereal regions.
The pianist, Dávid Báll, a robust character, who won the Bartók-competition in Szeged in 2004, then was awarded a joint third prize at the Liszt competition in Pécs in 2005, surprised the audience – both professional and the average – with the soft, fine tunes and colours he elicited from the piano. He was equally good at playing more powerfully where the dynamics of the composition so required, which is a sign of artistic maturity. The Festival Orchestra and Gábor Takács-Nagy were sensitive, excellent partners in assisting him with his endeavours.
The last piece on the programme of the “orchestra festival” of the Budapest Festival Orchestra in the Kodály Centre was Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 (“Spring”) in B-flat major which also offered genuine musical delicacies and revelatory discoveries. One such revelation is that the tremendous joy of life radiating from the opening movement can and has to be built with the same huge dynamic gradation as Strauss’ Zarathustra. Here I not only mean the excellent trumpet players playing standing up, but also the smooth crescendo of the brasses reaching their climax, the powerful strings and the playful solos of the woods, performed by the flute, the oboe and an excellent first clarinettist, all of which made me want to applaud loudly after the very first movement. But this movement was followed by the moving and poetic slow movement, the robustly constructed but not “overly demonic” Scherzo, which depicted an eerie vision of a then mentally sound person, and the liberating, vivid finale, which crowned the whole concert. The Budapest Festival Orchestra under the baton of Gábor Takács-Nagy provided a memorable experience, a superb quality that is rare even from an orchestra ranking among “the best orchestras in the world”. So, I have made a firm decision: I would get up even from my death bed to go and listen to any concert of the Festival Orchestra conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy.