Concerto Budapest will be performing in the UK's most renowned concert halls with Angela Hewitt pianist in June
For the rousing climax of the season, the Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra is delighted to have their first-ever performances in UK's most prestigious concert halls.
They will be led on their debut visit to London, Guildford, Manchester, Basingstoke, Birmingham, Manchester, and Edinburg by Music Director and first Conductor, András Keller, himself a violinist of the highest international reputation.
The 7 days concert tour will be accompanied by the distinguished Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt who will perform Mozart’s sublime Piano Concerto No.23.
In the past I had the opportunity to experience András Keller’s superb artistry as violinist and quartet leader in live concerts. I recall his performance of Bartók’s string quartets some fifteen or so years ago, and a few years later Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments for soprano and violin. Both concerts delivered the far from easy compositions at the highest possible standard, both were performed in the intimate environment of the Wigmore Hall.
I saw Keller as a conductor only on my computer, with the particular concert streamed from Budapest. Much as I appreciated the streaming opportunity, last Monday’s Cadogan Hall concert was my much-awaited first chance for experiencing Keller as a symphonic conductor in a live concert environment.
There was no way of knowing what to expect. Many excellent instrumentalists have turned to conducting and progressed from high quality soloists to mediocre (or embarrassingly bad) conductors. However, judging by the Cadogan Hall experience, without doubt Keller earned the right to direct a large symphony orchestra. Like the late Zoltán Kocsis – who added sole direction of the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra to his extraordinary piano playing – Keller incorporates his vast knowledge of music and instrumental experience into shaping his orchestra for a great ensemble to reckon with. Like the late Kocsis did, Keller also has the firm support of such heavyweights of our time as Kurtág and Peter Eotvos. Deservedly.
Bartók’s Concerto starts with a subdued motive with the interval of fourths. The orchestra indeed sounded subdued until the flute’s five-bar singing motive (played beautifully and with full assurance by Orsolya Kaczander) brought back normality. This Bartók performance was never harsh – as the Concerto often tends to be – with Bartók’s dynamics meticulously observed. The brass chorale in the second movement, marked mezzoforte, was beautifully sung; the timpani (in the hands of Boglárka Fábry) added the heartbeat but never used aggression. The violas sang their elegiac tune of the third movement with dignity, and then they presented their painful tune (in the fourth movement), possibly expressing longing for one’s country, beautifully. This tune, taken over by the orchestra, has never sounded more beautiful as at this concert, at least to me. By the fifth movement I forgot the orchestra’s difficult journey to reach Cadogan Hall: they were fully up for the immense virtuosity and humour set in Bartók’s score.
Angela Hewitt’s musical background differs from that of András Keller. Yet the chemistry between these two artists is so strong that it was easy to forget the participation of two performers. During the performance of the Mozart piano concerto, I kept hearing only one participant: Mozart. The unity between Hewitt and Keller as well as between Hewitt and relevant sections of the orchestra is exemplary. And then there is the unity between Hewitt and the audience: during the solo piano cadence of the first movement the silence in the auditorium was remarkable; you could have heard a pin drop but none did. The second movement’s interchange between piano and wind was an unbroken continuous song. Like Keller, Hewitt does not employ any sentimentality; she lets Mozart’s harmonies speak for themselves.
On conclusion of the piano concerto, Hewitt graciously thanked the audience for attending in spite of the tube strike. She rewarded us with a Scarlatti sonata, played with informed baroque discipline, integrity and yet with utter beauty.
In Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony the urgent introductory fate motive set the tone for what was an exciting but noble reading of Beethoven’s score. Keller does not employ any cheap shots; he does not allow any self-indulgence. Throughout the symphony he brought out all contrasting elements, such as the second movement’s march set against a sweeping romantic tune, or the gentle introduction of the third movement contrasting the harsh fate motive of the horns. Keller and his team portrayed all emotions in the score with commitment, passion and with integrity without gimmicks. On conclusion, the Cadogan Hall was filled with victorious sounds, prompting the audience to want more.
The two encores were utterly brilliant and emotionally charged: the final movement of Beethoven’s Second Symphony was faster than taken by some other conductors (although a quick search on the Internet shows several fast renderings similar to Keller’s speed) while the performance of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.5 in G minor was a masterclass in how to tackle romanticism with taste.
The Zurich International Orchestra Series at Cadogan Hall has pulled many rabbits out of hats, and this UK debut from Concerto Budapest was quite an ear-opener. Concerto Budapest has been in business since 1907 (as the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra) and significantly refreshed by András Keller (founder of the Quartet that bears his name) who became Chief Conductor in 2007. The combination made a huge impression, mainly based on an infectious enthusiasm that flooded over the footlights, a seize-the-moment impulsiveness present in abundance.
The role of overture was assumed by Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, as substantial a presentation of credentials as you could expect from this dream-team band. In a work that starts like Bluebeard’s Castle and ends like The Miraculous Mandarin, Concerto Budapest showed off the calibre of its playing with great flair. The trumpets sliced through the brooding introduction like silver daggers, and, incidentally, reminded how often Britten’s brass-writing sounds like Bartók’s. The bassoons were irresistible in the ‘couples’ movement, followed by the ‘Elegy’, music of the night given ample blackness, depth and drama. The keening strings added extra bite to the Lehár/Shostakovich parody in the ‘Interrupted Intermezzo’, followed by the impetuous momentum of the final movement. The Concerto Budapest sound was cultivated, and any brightness was leavened by the richness of the lower strings, given breadth and ballast by a dynamic viola section.
Following the interval, Mozart’s A-major Piano Concerto (K488/No.23), a notably intimate work, without any trumpet-and-drum swagger, but including eloquent clarinets. With the string sections each reduced by a desk, Keller, who had been on top of all the detail in the Bartók, here was more persuasive than organising, the sort of insider conducting that suits Hewitt’s conversational elegance. In this most operatic of Mozart’s Piano Concertos, the give and take between soloist and ensemble got hallucinatingly close to speech. There was often something subversive in the way Hewitt improved or elaborated on an orchestral comment, along with some sublimely civilised games in play as the players enjoyed brief moments of triumphant ascendancy. Hewitt was remarkably in-tune with the Adagio’s quasi-Blues sadness, showing an emotional depth eventually comforted by the lovely woodwind, and coaxed by discreet expressive looks and nods from the soloist. Her encore was Scarlatti’s ultra-charming Sonata in E, Kk380, the one with the little military fanfares threading through it.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has warhorse status, in that you think you know it so well. Keller and Concerto Budapest addressed this in a gripping performance that made you listen as if for the first time. Even with the exposition repeat, the first movement sounded taut and almost epigrammatic; the Andante con moto had a subtle and relaxed energy; and Keller’s delivery of the Scherzo into the opening blast of the Finale only went to show what a wonderful, revolutionary work this is.
There were two encores, the Finale of Beethoven’s Second Symphony and Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.5.
Considering its status as the most famous piece of classical music, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is actually quite rarely programmed in London. I can’t remember the last time I heard it live before last night, and it took the visiting Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra to return it to the repertoire. They played this often stern music with a smile on their faces, as they did the accompanying Mozart and Bartók.
It was, surprisingly, the Bartók – home territory for this orchestra – that struck the only uncertain note of the evening. The Concerto for Orchestra is a late masterpiece, mercurial, broad, intense and thrilling. But perhaps not the ideal opener, with its slow-burn first movement feeling a little bitty. (Surely the Beethoven is a better opener?) Things got better: the bassoon duet in the second movement sparkled, the nocturnal haziness of the third ended tantalisingly mid-thought, the fourth had satirical bite but also some sweeping string playing. Things really caught fire in the finale, its frantic energy whipped up by a flamboyant András Keller, the brass (pictured below by Andrea Felvegi) firing on all cylinders.
It’s always a question with a touring orchestra: do they sound different from the British groups? Well, the string sound is different: not less polished as differently polished; the brass magnificent, the woodwind playing perhaps a touch fallible. What was noticeable was the pleasure permanently evident on the faces of the players, especially the viola front desk pairing of Lászlo Móré and Ágnes Apró, who lived every note with delight and affection.
This shared sense of fun extended to Angela Hewitt (pictured below), who joined them for Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto K. 488. She was part of the ensemble, passing lines to and from the orchestra, but there was also a marvellous robustness in her playing, and an improvisatory fluidity to the first movement cadenza. The second movement was heartbreakingly sad, Hewitt mesmerising, supported by plaintive bassoons, and the skittish finale flew by. It was a joy, as was Hewitt’s Scarlatti encore, all trills and military tattoos, the humour enjoyed but never indulged.
Keller’s conducting in the Mozart was quite elaborate, making sculptures in the air with his hands, rarely deigning to simply beat time. In the Beethoven he was more straightforward and driven. The third movement featured deliciously slippery low string playing in the fugue but perhaps the best bit was the mysterious slow build-up to the finale movement, when the trombones and piccolo, the two extremes of the orchestra, are finally let off the leash. Keller drove them relentlessly to the ending – indeed, to each of the would-be endings before the actual one – and, barely pausing for breath, through the encores, including, naturally, the famous Brahms Hungarian Dance no.5.
And so, with thrilling Bartok and Beethoven, the Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra announced its arrival in the UK. Never heard of this group? Remember the name. This Hungarian orchestra is seriously good and, judging by the excited snippets of chatter I overheard around me, the Cadogan Hall audience agreed.
It made sense to start with Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, a Hungarian calling card. If you want a piece that shows listeners what a group’s made of, showcasing each section, this does the trick. In truth the performance began too sombrely and squarely and I thought I might be in for a long evening, but the orchestra found its spark. And what music-making when it did: agile, lyrical, characterful, intense. Every player was a leader.
That’s due, no doubt, to the philosophy of the Concerto Budapest’s music director, Andras Keller. A violinist who studied with Gyorgy Kurtag and founded the Keller Quartet, he has spent much of his career in chamber music. While that’s no guarantee of being a good conductor — I can think of violinists-turned-maestros who should return their batons — it pays off here.
Keller has breathed new life into an orchestra that dates from 1907 but has forged its present identity in the 15 years since he took over. His vision is of a symphony orchestra that’s like an 80-strong chamber group, its members (metaphorically) singing together like a polyphonic choir. His penny-plain conducting encourages this approach, putting the emphasis on the interactions between the musicians, whose frequent smiles suggest they approve.
At some points, more of a guiding hand would help — a tempo change in the Concerto for Orchestra juddered like a faulty gearbox, while the vigorous start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sounded like an accidental ricochet. Plus, the Concerto Budapest’s sound is incredibly lustrous and present. It’s like standing in full sun — energising, but just every so often you find yourself wishing for some shade.
What most impressed is how virtuosity was turned to emotional ends. Bartok spins his music like a roulette wheel, landing on a different mood each time: playful, serious, satirical, elegiac. In Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23, with Angela Hewitt the well-matched soloist, the musicians found wholesome joy and ineffable beauty. But it was the Beethoven that proved truly exhilarating. Keller’s fast tempos in the Beethoven — his Andante was brisk-stroll-bordering-on-gentle-jog — were no problem for his nimble string players, and the finale blazed. Catch the band on tour while you can.
Tuesday June 07 2022
The programme offered to Manchester (slightly different from other venues so far on the tour) had two pieces full of folksong and dance and two mainstream classical ones.
Top of the menu was Kodály’s Dances of Galánta – played for the first time on the tour but no doubt bread-and-butter to these musicians back home. Their string tone is rightly something to be proud of, and the eight celli made a superb start to the piece (the following string playing wasn’t as clean and precise as the Bridgewater Hall acoustic really needs, but it takes a little time to adjust to it – there’s an awful lot of side-to-side resonance in this hall). The music has something of the sound of traditional ‘gypsy’ bands in it, and by the fast bit near the end there were grins all round – they were enjoying doing it.
Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody no. 1, played after the interval, had much of the same feel to it (and gave the percussionists of the orchestra something to do: their two harps and a most self-effacing pianissimo triangle made their delicate contribution).
But before that there was Angela Hewitt. You could hardly get more mainstream than Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major (K488), and she plays it with good old-fashioned well-pedalled smoothness and grace. The orchestra, too, was suavity personified, and its principal bassoon had his best vibrato to show off, along with the principal oboe’s most expressive style, in the second and final movements.
Angela Hewitt’s playing is beautifully proportioned and finely calculated. Mozart’s (his own) first movement cadenza brought a flash of drama to the narrative … and I loved the way (being a director-from-the-keyboard herself on other occasions) she conducted the players back into action herself at the recapitulation. She played the gloriously elegiac central Adagio una corda but with some surprise emphases to stimulate the imagination.
To remind us of her expertise in interpreting baroque keyboard music for the modern piano, she returned with an encore in the shape of a Scarlatti sonata.
Last there was Beethoven’s Fifth. Strings were slightly reduced for this (they had been cut right down for Mozart), but there were modern timpani. There was plenty of energetic articulation in the opening movement, and intriguing crescendos on held notes from the wind players. The speeds of the remainder were mainly brisk, though sometimes variable in a nicely Romantic way, and the horns and trumpets (three of the latter, with shared duties on the top line, to keep their sound brightly dominating everything else) made a powerful contribution.
via: Manchester Classical Music
After two years of lockdowns, on a beautiful summer’s afternoon it was splendid to see so many people in attendance at the Usher Hall and indeed so many young people. In all the ten seasons of international concerts here, I cannot remember a Hungarian ensemble appearing here – somewhat strange as Hungary has a rich cultural heritage. Liszt, Kodály and Bartók belong to the highest ranks of composers, and Hungary has produced legions of world-class musicians such as the conductors Szell, Reiner, Ormandy, and Solti, pianists in Annie Fischer, András Schiff, Geza Anda, Zoltán Kocsis, and the violinists Szigeti, Joachim, Auer, the cellist Starker, and many others.
In recent years, globalization has witnessed many of Hungary’s finest musicians being recruited by Europe’s leading orchestras. Thankfully, today the Hungarian government is helping to finance the country’s arts, and today Iván Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra are world renowned. For this venerable ensemble which boasts a history going back to 1907, the regenerated Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra could be anticipated to offer a high standard.
Opening the concert with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra presents a challenge for any orchestra. However, it was here the ensemble revealed their superb virtuosity, no more so than in the Andante non troppo, with the ominous theme on the low strings prior to the whispering phrase on the violins creating expectation before the lovely entry from the flute of Orsolya Kaczander, just the first in a series of outstanding contributions from her. There came more splendour from the golden-hued trumpets that already hinted at an exciting afternoon. With the strokes from the snare drum, the Allegro scherzando opened in a sequence of ‘games in pairs’ with the woodwind group producing a shade of neo-classicism before they engaged in a spectacle of solo virtuosity: the bassoons, especially the oboe of Béla Horvath, and the clarinets were magnificent, while the muted trumpets were vibrant against the tremolos in the strings before the brass introduced another idea before the snare drum reprised the theme – all marvellously clear. In the Elegia, again the double basses introduced a shadowy idea and were supported by superb playing from the woodwind, with the idiom of lamenting accentuated by the two harps, and the icy sounding violins. In the fourth movement (Allegretto) Horvath’s oboe intonation was again splendid, matched by the flute of Kaczander, before the violas introduced a sequence of riotous slapstick mocking Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, (though more likely the theme comes from Franz Lehár’s song ‘Hungary, how beautiful, how exquisite you are’), accentuated by trombones, woodwind and percussion. In the Finale-Presto, there was a beautiful lilting rhythmic dynamic throughout the whole orchestra, boosted by the terrific violins. This was a tremendous opening to the concert offering a taster of the orchestra’s astonishing brilliance and musical talent.
Angela Hewitt was the soloist for Mozart’s A major piano concerto which began beautifully in the violins before her own opening on the keyboard It was nice to see Hewitt in empathy with the musicians with her gently rocking movements. In the Adagio there was some quite divine playing by Hewitt, presenting the music sensitively in both technique and artistry, and leading to some lovely virtuosity in a brief interlude from Csaba Klenyán on the clarinet, the bassoon of Bálint Mohai, and Kaczander on flute, before the relaxed Sicilienne dance. In the brief Finale, there was a jaunty sonata-rondo in which the mood quickly transformed – banishing sadness into a celebration of life – such was the relationship between orchestra and Hewitt that she was almost directing the orchestra – as if a secondary conductor – and closing the concerto in a happy and joyous harmony. As an encore, she played a delightful Siciliano by Scarlatti.
It was difficult to conceive of any better playing in the Beethoven Fifth Symphony and Concerto Budapest produced what was for me one of the finest performances of this work heard here in many years. The opening was grand, brisk and dramatic, distinguished by beautiful horn playing, and aided by superb oboe playing again from Horvath. The trumpets and ensemble playing was outstanding, again there were magnificent flute playing from Kaczander and – for their contribution – one must mention all three trumpets of Gábor Devecsai, Balázs Pecze, Dénes Seidl whose brilliance was a highlight of the entire concert and playing as if their lives depended on it! The strings had a beautiful bloom especially the first violins led by Zsófia Környei. In the third movement, there was magnificent timbre from the golden hued horns and the double basses and assisted by Mohai on the bassoon, before the timpani proclaimed the Allegro finale, storming forth with the entire orchestra in superb form playing as if this was a freshly conceived work. Again, the trumpets were glorious, matched by the trombones bringing this symphony to a glorious celebratory close. Most of all, it was a credit to András Keller’s fine control of balance in allowing different sections of the orchestra to be heard against the strings, woodwind or the brass to bring out a clearer and more faithful picture of Beethoven’s masterpiece.
I suspect that this world-class ensemble will be getting many more engagements in this country, and they fully deserve to appear at Edinburgh’s International Festival as they are that good.