Kamara.hu 3: Chamber Music in the Liszt Academy’s Grand Hall

HungaryHungary Kamara.hu 2017 Chamber Music Festival [2] – Debussy, Chopin, Janáček, Schubert: Grand Hall, Franz Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest. 18.11.2017. (SS)

Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon (c) Liszt Academy/Zoltán Tuba

DebussyEn blanc et noir (Izabella Simon, Dénes Várjon)

Chopin – Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op.posth. (Tamás Érdi); Ballade in G Minor, Op.23 (Tamás Érdi)

Janáček – Concertino (Miranda Liu, Muriel Cantoreggi, Andrea Hallam, Radovan Vlatkovic, Csaba Klenyán, György Lakatos, Dénes Várjon); Pohádka (Miklós Perényi, Roman Rabinovich)

Schubert – Piano Quintet in A major (‘Trout’), D.677 (Kristóf Baráti, Kim Kashkashian, Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, Zsolt Fejérvári, Dénes Várjon)

For the third concert of kamara.hu we decamped to the Liszt Academy’s Grand Hall, which was reopened in 2013 following a painstaking restoration. The auditorium makes quite an impact, from the onyx black lacquer of the bentwood seats covered with a special Italian velvet no longer in production, to the dazzling foliage of golden laurels which line the ceiling. Look around and you see the interior is dotted with representations of Apollo’s swans and lyres. It is, unapologetically, a temple to art, with all the aesthetic splendor and Romantic baggage that entails. Luckily for modern-day Budapest audiences, it has a splendidly resonant acoustic as well.

This Grand Hall concert began with kamara.hu’s two artistic directors, Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon, performing the first of two works programmed this year in which we heard them as a piano duo. Any sense of interplay between the two pianists in Debussy’s En blanc et noir was more visual than realized in sound; most of the time, the effect was quasi-orchestral, as if the work of a single player, and without the faintest intrusion of muddy pedaling. Overall, each of the suite’s three movements were of the ‘watercolorist’ school of Debussyian piano playing, indeed a pretty immaculate example of that style.

Next up was another pianist, Tamás Érdi, who lost his eyesight shortly after birth. Like the great pianist Imre Ungár, who was also Hungarian and blind (and had a long teaching career at the Liszt Academy), Érdi seems to have a deep affinity with Chopin. First he played the famous C sharp minor Nocturne, with a muscularity that has established itself as the primary interpretative alternative to approaching the piece with a uniformly gauzy touch. Most importantly, the force which he applied was predominantly directed towards the shaping of line. The G minor Ballade was similarly robust, carried through again with sensitive phrasing. Érdi’s pauses between loud and soft sections – intentionally noticeable, but subtle at the same time – made the most of the drama inherent in these moments of contrast.

Before and after the intermission there was Janáček. Any work of Janáček’s which isn’t one of the operas, the Glagolitic Mass, or Taras Bulba tends to be scandalously underperformed, and the Concertino is up there with The Wandering Madman and the Capriccio for left-handed piano and winds in terms of works I’ve been waiting to hear live. The first two movements are solo pieces for the horn and clarinet (accompanied by the piano), and the entire ensemble, audibly choreographed into three groups (strings, winds, piano), is first heard in the remaining two movements. Janáček likened elements of the work to various animals and this performance was suitably anthropomorphic, even if recognizably human traits seemed at times less animal-like and purely human. The first movement’s call and response between piano and horn was realized by Dénes Várjon with stentorian, demanding tone, to which Radovan Vlatkovic reacted with something rather more inscrutably laconic. The clarinet in the second movement was, to Janáček, a ‘fidgety squirrel’; Csaba Klenyán conveyed jumpiness with a note of cheek too. When the full ensemble joined in, Várjon was still the driving force, articulating all the unison octaves in the piano writing as assertive interjections, but the strings and combined winds were by no means docile. The final movement worked inexorably towards a stirring coda, which closed the piece with an exciting flourish.

En blanc et noir and the Concertino in the first half and Janáček’s Pohádka and the Trout Quintet in the second half produced an intriguing symmetry. The cellist Miklós Perényi had stood out in the opening concert’s Verklärte Nacht and it was a treat to hear him in two solo works, beginning in this concert with Pohádka. This performance was unfortunately somewhat impaired by balance issues: Roman Rabinovich is a fine pianist but I was less convinced of his strengths as an accompanist; the playing often overpowered Perényi’s lyrical phrasing and mellow tone. It might have helped to have had the piano at half-stick. The Schubert, by contrast, was perfectly balanced with a satisfyingly cohesive sense of ensemble. It was a conventional reading of the work without a strong interpretive profile, and could have dug a little deeper, but it was clear from the beginning that showing off the piece’s buoyancy and sparkle was the main goal of this performance, and throughout all the four movements – with the variations and the finale sounding particularly effervescent – this aim was consummately realized.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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