The London, Cadogan Hall concert's success

Rebecca Franks, The Times: Concerto Budapest/Keller review — the Hungarian orchestra was agile and intense

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