Tremendous Edinburgh debut by the glorious virtuosi of Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra
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.