Zsolt Fejérvári has led the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s double bass section since 1994. Alongside bassoonist Andrea Bressan and clarinetist Roland Csalló, he was one of this year’s winners of the orchestra’s Sándor Végh Competition. Interview.
How would you sum up the essence of the Sándor Végh Competition?
I think the Sándor Végh Competition is one of Iván Fischer’s fantastic inventions. The world-famous orchestras often let their own soloists perform concertos. First violinists, solo cellists or solo flautists usually get such opportunities, but I don’t know of any such competition elsewhere that is open to every single tutti player, and even supporting musicians, with the grand prize being the opportunity to perform as a soloist. Any orchestra member can take part in the Sándor Végh Competition and play a concerto and, if the jury chooses them as a winner, they can perform the solo part of that piece of music accompanied by the Budapest Festival Orchestra. I think it’s amazing that, for the members of the BFO, there’s no such thing as fading into the background of orchestral playing, which is so common elsewhere.
Who decides on the winners of the Sándor Végh Competition?
A jury of prominent musicians listens to the applicants and makes its decision after careful consideration. Besides Iván Fischer, György Konrád, violist, György Lakatos, bassoonist, Lajos Lencsés, oboist and soloist at the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, Tamás Major, violinist and BFO concertmaster, and András Vass, conductor of the Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra, all had a say in the winners of this year’s Sándor Végh Competition. The most important thing about the Sándor Végh Competition is that the orchestra members consider taking part to be an extraordinary challenge, and all the work and practice that they put into it can even be heard in the way the orchestra plays after the competition.
Because, through this, it can suddenly be revealed that certain artists have an outstanding talent that so far has been hidden when they have been playing in the ensemble?
Yes, exactly, though it was widely known that this year’s winners, Andrea Bressan and Roland Csalló, are outstanding musicians. I’m very proud to have won alongside two such exceptionally talented members of the orchestra. Andrea’s family and mine are close friends, and they even stayed at our house during this year’s competition. Just to show how small the world is, Andrea’s family live in Lonigo, a small town near Vicenza, just a few streets away from the monastery where I usually spend several weeks a year rehearsing as the guest of András Schiff’s chamber orchestra, the Cappella Andrea Barca. At such times, of course, we seize the opportunity to indulge in some Italian pasta together...
This is the fourth time you have won the competition over the years, so you already have experience of what it is like to perform as a soloist.
It’s an incredible experience to play before the audience with the Budapest Festival Orchestra behind me, and to sense that my fellow musicians are almost laying out a carpet for the soloist and not overpowering the quieter double bass for a second.
Is it very embarrassing if somebody delivers a bad performance?
It’s almost unheard of for anyone to perform really poorly. Quite the opposite, I find that everybody excels. Colleagues on the verge of retirement, for example, often give such fantastic performances that words such as tiredness or ageing would never come to mind. Rarely heard pieces get played, and many colleagues put an enormous amount of research into their performance. Everyone is proud to show what they are capable of. It’s also noteworthy that so many people take part each year, although, of course, they are under no obligation to do so.
Winners are rewarded with being able to play solo. The traditional Haydn-Mozart Plus series with conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy and the two winners of the Sándor Végh Competition as soloists begins on 24 October this year. One of the soloists is you, and the other is Andrea Bressan, bassoonist. How do you prepare for these concerts?
The fact that I can perform as a soloist at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music is far more important than any award or recognition. The double bass is not typically a solo instrument, so perhaps the concert will be an exciting discovery for the audience for that very reason – the double bass will go beyond its usual bounds and surprise the audience with break-neck passages and mellifluous cantilenas.
The piece you are going to perform was composed by Johann Baptist Vanhal, specifically for the double bass. What should we know about the composer and this piece?
I particularly like the period between roughly 1750 and 1810. I don’t think many people know that exceptionally wonderful solo works were written for the double bass in those years. Haydn also composed a double bass concerto which, to the great regret of double bass players, was probably destroyed in a fire, and just the first two bars were preserved in a catalogue. It could have been a marvellous piece.
How can the popularity of the double bass at the time be explained?
The double bass was also popular earlier, but the number of solo works suddenly increased at that time. At that time a new type of tuning came into fashion which made the instrument especially popular – it was very easy to play double stops and quick broken triplets, but the drawback was that almost every single piece was written in D major. Then with the arrival of Romanticism, that solo school was forgotten almost instantaneously, because of the tonal limitations. Interestingly, virtuosos double bassists played in the ensembles of Hungarian aristocratic families across Europe, such as Johannes Matthias Sperger, who was employed for years in the orchestra of Cardinal Primate Batthyány in Bratislava and subsequently in the orchestra of the Erdődy family in Kohfidisch, or Joseph Kämpfer, who later toured Europe as a soloist with his double bass that could be taken apart. Today it is believed that Vanhal may also have written a double bass concerto for the incredibly talented Sperger. Vanhal, who was of Czech origin, was the world’s first composer not to work under any patron. He was not only Mozart’s contemporary, but he also played in a string quartet with him. Haydn and Hofmeister were the violinists, while Vanhal played the cello and Mozart the viola. It must have been an excellent string quartet – I would have loved to have heard it!
How do you find the piece you are going to play itself?
Attentive listeners may be reminded at first of Haydn’s concertos. The audience will be surprised at what sweeping, lyrical melodies it is possible to produce with this deep-toned instrument. I already played this piece once in 1994, accompanied by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and conducted by Ivan Fischer, right after I came home from the Munich Chamber Orchestra, where I had been working for years. That was twenty years ago today, and I’m still very fond of the piece.