Budapest’s Chamber Music Festival Provides a Glimpse of Not Only an Existential But Also a Political Utopia


HungaryHungary ‘Turning Point’ – Chamber Music Festival: Izabella Simon and Dénes Várjon (artistic directors), Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest, 17-20.11.2016. (TKT)


Izabella Simon and Dénes Várjon (artistic directors) (c) Andrea Felvégi A decisive turning point in the history of chamber music festivals, its cutting edge program included Schubert songs and Schumann cycles, Debussy’s last great works, contemporary chamber music and a host of illustrious compositions performed at the Liszt Academy, as well as a children’s program and an afternoon on literature and music.

Perhaps it was still the shock about the outcome of the presidential election in the US, mixed with the relief about the recent defeat of Viktor Orbán’s referendum and proposed constitutional amendment on migrant quotas, but my thoughts upon arriving in Budapest on November 17 were more political than music-related. It was András Schiff’s refusal to perform in Hungary and declaration, a few years ago, that he would not even visit his home country as a private citizen that was on my mind rather than some of his milestone recordings and memories of concerts with him.

An unfair attitude, as the festival program was unusually exciting. For the second time in a row, the four-day was going to take place at the Liszt Academy. Last year’s theme was ‘Firsts and Lasts’ (referring to compositions by some of the giants in music history), this year it was ‘Turning Point’ – featuring music that constituted a watershed either in the respective composer’s life, or the history of music or genre respectively. We could, in other words, expect music that pointed beyond the works themselves. Music not as mere entertainment but with profound meaning, and vision.

Showcasing the existential qualities of music is also one way, perhaps, of attracting young audiences. A vital function of festivals, no doubt, as the future of classical music is in jeopardy: the Budapest edition of the Where magazine at the hotel, for example, listed a DJ, rap and reggae/ska event for the three days that I was there, but made no mention of

The Liszt Academy tries to cater to younger audiences as well. Its delightful image video clip ( is exciting, fresh, funny, and forward-looking (and, incidentally, the winner of a 2015 red dot award, the institution’s second). More than a university, the Academy has two concert halls and organizes no less than 400 concerts a year. In addition, according to Imre Szabó Stein, director of communications, it is preparing a major new music undertaking: the Bartók Competition, to be held for the first time in September 2017. With so many formidable musical activities, it is no surprise that budgets for musical events are somewhat limited, despite generous state funding. What is, however, surprising given the sheer number of concerts, is the caliber of some of these events. This year’s festival had not only a positively thrilling program but also brought stellar musicians from Hungary, Germany, Norway, the UK, and the US to the stage – an international event by all accounts. The composers represented were from Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria, two of whom made the US their home for a number of years. They covered two centuries of music, from Romanticism to the present day. The program offered a few very well-known but mostly little-known works, from some of the biggest names in music history to almost obscure composers – no matter which of the altogether five concerts you attended, there was always something new to discover.

The Liszt Academy is an architectural jewel, outside and inside. The opening concert took place in the Sir Georg Solti Chamber Hall – with just over 250 seats, a remarkably small venue for such a major affair. The audience was in fact younger than that of most concerts I have attended over the last years. Opening night was not nearly sold out, but the following nights the hall was packed. The festival started with Schubert’s Lebensstürme, a work for piano for four hands written just six months before the composer’s death and published only posthumously. The title (The Storms of Life), needless to say, was not of Schubert’s doing but penned by his publisher, Anton Diabelli – a tad lurid, perhaps, but not inappropriate. Structurally somewhere between a sonata and a fantasia, the work has an existential urgency to it, opening with an energetic Allegro and moving on to a lyrical theme, along daring harmonic progressions and polyphonic passages. The two pianists, Isabella Simon and Dénes Várjon – who were also the musical directors of the entire festival – played the piece in all its contrasts and complexity and were so in harmony with one another one might almost have been surprised that they are also husband and wife. A powerful beginning indeed.

Schubert took the stage again this evening with five Lieder wonderfully sung by Sarah Shafer to Ms Simon’s accompaniment, but not before we heard Dvořák’s Dumky, a piano trio brilliantly performed by Mr. Várjon, violinist Carolin Widmann and cellist Christoph Richter. Completed in 1891, it was first performed soon thereafter on the occasion of the composer receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Prague, shortly before Dvořák’s departure for the United States, to enormous success. Literally a small dumka – a form of ballad – Dvořák’s Dumky is not so small at all. Alternating between melancholy and cheerful parts in minor and major keys, it has also been called a ‘black fantasia’. A perfect piece right before the intermission, making the audience long for more.

Schubert’s moving songs ‘Nacht und Träume’, ‘Die junge Nonne’, ‘Frühlingsglaube’, ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ and ‘Rosamunde’ were followed by a contemporary work, No.10 of the postludes from Equinox composed and performed by Henning Kraggerud, the Norwegian star violinist who has given us recordings ranging from Mozart to Ysaÿe as well as his own work. The artistic director of the Arctic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (with which he recorded Equinox in its original, orchestral version) has composed a work that consists of 24 ‘postludes’ in all major and minor keys, not in chromatically ascending order but journeying in the circle of fifths. ‘Journeying’ is indeed the proper term here: the work is a collaboration with Jostein Gaarder (of Sophie’s World fame) telling the story of a man’s journey through time. Starting in Greenwich, the man travels around the world, stopping at each of the 24 meridians. Each meridian corresponds to a specific time of day and time zone, and has its own postlude. Six parts form a concerto, so the entire work consists of four concertos: Afternoon, Evening, Night, and Morning. The composition was thus not only inspired by Bach (and others) but also by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Ideally the work is performed along with the text, with the music always following the narrative – hence ‘postludes’ – but the individual parts also work on their own, for instance as encores. After a magnificent rendition of Leoš Janáček’s violin sonata (again with Mr Várjon on the piano) Kraggerud played No.24 of Equinox. The two parts performed at the festival gave more than an inkling of the sheer richness, magic, and beauty of this work. (Excerpts from six parts can be heard on the composer’s website at The entire work, in the original orchestra version, is available from Simax Classics.)

Strange as it may seem to have two parts from Equinox interrupted by Janáček’s only extant violin sonata, arrangements of this kind were, after all, not in the least unusual in early 19th-century concert events. And amazingly, the two works turned out to be good matches. Janáček’s sonata, written in 1914 and clearly influenced by the outbreak of World War I, was also romantically inspired. And like Equinox, this gem of a composition expresses a wide range of moods and emotions. It also underscored the fact that Kraggerud’s haunting composition draws its power from being steeped in tradition while at the same time astounding us with its originality.

The evening concluded with a better-known composition, Béla Bartók’s three-part Contrasts from 1938, which was commissioned by Benny Goodman. Based on Hungarian and Romanian dance melodies, it also seems to recall Ravel and, in its third movement, uses a Bulgarian 3+2+3/2+3 rhythm. The final version of the composition was performed in Carnegie Hall in 1940, with Bartók at the piano, Goodman playing the clarinet and Joseph Szigeti the violin part. It was enthusiastically received – but it is difficult to imagine that the performance was more thrilling than the one by the magnificent Mr Dénes, Csaba Klenyán, and Carolin Widmann.

The first night already showed in a nutshell what the festival was all about: a wide range of musical epochs and styles, famous and unknown works performed by outstanding musicians and the sheer joy of music-making. The sense that these musicians not only loved what they were playing but also liked one another was palpable, and conversations with some of them corroborated that many of them are, in fact, friends who had played together before. This added another dimension to the music, making it not a mere aesthetic but also an existential experience. I caught myself longing for those pre–TV and radio days, when people got together and made music for themselves and their guests.

The next few days intensified this impression. The doubtless most famous work (performed in a tour de force by bass István Kovács and Ms Simon) was Schubert’s Winterreise. Debussy was represented with his violin sonata, written during World War I and deliberately in contrast to the ‘Germanic’ music tradition, less than a year before the composer lost his battle against cancer. Violinist Viviane Hagner and Mr Várjon rendered not only the work’s moving poetic and elegant qualities but also the daring harmonies and sometimes relaxed, sometimes nervous or even frolicsome moods of this stunningly modern piece. Schumann was represented with two works. First came Märchenerzählungen, the composer’s penultimate chamber music work, performed by Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Jörg Widmann (clarinet) and Mr Várjon. Inspired by the composer’s excitement of meeting young Johannes Brahms, it is often fairy tale–like and lyrical, but also playful and humorous – without any indication of the despair that would make Schumann try to drown himself in the Rhine a mere four months later. Frauenliebe und -leben (again performed by Ms. Shafer and Ms. Simon) was written earlier, in 1840, a year in which the composer wrote no less than 120 lieder, after overcoming a period of depression and self-doubt, when the conflict with Clara’s father had reached its climax. In the spring of that year Schumann had commented on writing songs to Clara in a letter: ‘I cannot tell you how light everything has become for me, and how happy I was engaging in this.’

Two years after his first encounter with the Schumanns, Brahms began work on his piano quartet in C minor. Apprehensive about their relationship because of his love for Clara, it would take him 20 years to complete it, and it expresses the whole gamut of emotions this romantic northern German felt: you hear sighs, utmost despair, tenderness – it is one of the most moving and tragic, and yet also sweet pieces Brahms wrote, expressed here in all its beauty by Messrs Kraggerud, Isserlis and Várjon, and Ms Zimmermann.


Steven Isserlis (c) Satoshi Aoyagi

Another festival highlight was Jörg Widmann’s Es war einmal … (Once upon a time – Five pieces in a fairy-tale tone for clarinet, viola, and piano), a work that was premiered almost exactly one year earlier at Tonhalle Zurich (which had also commissioned it) by the same three musicians: the composer, Ms Zimmermann, and Mr Várjon. None of them seems to be familiar with the concept of technical difficulties, otherwise playing this work might have meant the end of a beautiful friendship. But even more remarkable than their virtuosity was their perfect unity, their precision, and the way they made even cacophony sound like harmony. They created fairy-tale moods – sometimes by making noises, sometimes with the help of a large wooden pick, or by Ms Zimmermann singing, or Mr Widmann playing into the grand piano – from the world over, from that of the Grimm brothers to the Orient. As a listener, you were tempted to come up with stories to these five pieces, or imagine a film – but then a film would only have distracted from the music, which was clearly the main protagonist: music of the kind that is not just for listening to at home but that must be performed, because with this music the performance itself is an integral part of the aesthetic enjoyment.

Other works were Josef Suk’s Op.3, Ballade and Serenade for cello and piano (Messrs Isserlis and Várjon), with which the composer stepped out of the shadow of his teacher and father-in-law, Antonin Dvořák, and a Duo for Violin and Cello (Ms Hagner and Mr Isserlis) by Erwin Schulhoff, a rich and expressive work by an original, early avant-garde composer who experimented with Dadaists and Cubists and who – a Jew, Communist and, though Czech-born, Soviet citizen – was to perish in a German concentration camp. More or less forgotten after his death, we owe it largely to Gidon Kremer that we have had a chance to acquaint ourselves with him. Judging from this stunning performance, what a discovery!

Two concerts took place on the final day (which I missed), with Satie, Liszt, Ravel, Beethoven, more Schumann and Dvořák, the experimental Italian composer Luciano Berio and Budapest’s own György Kurtág, some of them performed by young musicians. Festivals in general are able to expose listeners to unfamiliar works and lesser or even unknown artists by attracting audiences with old favorites and stars. They are marathons – or mini marathons – that broaden the audience’s horizon and in so doing point beyond themselves. What happened at was much more. On the one hand, it also opened a door to the future by including a matinee event for children with a work loosely based on ‘Little Red Riding Hood’: The Little Red Violin (and the Big Evil Cello) composed by English composer Anne Dudley and words (sic!) by Steven Isserlis. On the other hand, the scope of music was enlarged to include a conversation between the two artistic directors and the writers György Dragomán (probably best known to an English-speaking audience for The White King) and his wife, the poet and short story writer Anna T Szabó. The event was introduced by yet another utterly virtuoso, intoxicating performance by Jörg Widmann playing an own composition. Starting with death as a turning point – the Academy was still in shock over Zoltán Kocsis passing away just a little over a week before – the conversation between the two couples moved on to other topics that included art, creation, and communication.

According to the two artistic directors, next year’s event will most likely have something to do with magic and fairy tales – at which this year’s edition already hinted several times. Yet the festival provided much more than an escape from the everyday world: it opened up new spaces that connected the aesthetic experience to reality. András Schiff had stated he would no longer so much as set foot in his country because of the rising anti-Semitism and because he had been physically threatened. This may have been directed at him personally, as he is one of Hungary’s own most prominent critics of the country’s right-of-centre government. And with hindsight I feel that there was a political dimension to the festival as well. I do not have a clue as to the festival’s artistic directors’ or the other musicians’ political stance. But what they expressed and conveyed was a spirit of togetherness, of open-mindedness and excellence, of solidarity and sheer joy that flies in the face of everything all those closed-minded, xenophobic populists stand for who have gained so much momentum internationally during recent years. To my knowledge, Hungary is the country with the smallest percentage (less than two) of foreign-born citizens in Europe. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the two writers invited to speak at the festival’s literary afternoon were both Romanian-born (though they have long since become Hungarian citizens). In any event, after the festival I, too, felt that lightness and happiness of which Robert Schumann spoke, and I experienced it as a glimpse of not only an existential but also a political utopia.

Thomas K Thornton


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