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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: Budapest Festival Orchestra Shows How Bartók is Done

REVIEW: Budapest Festival Orchestra Shows How Bartók is Done

APRIL 7, 2019

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

Béla Bartók spent his final years living in a building at the northwest corner of 57th Street and 7th Avenue. Carnegie Hall, on the diagonally opposite corner, hosted his native Hungary's present-day preeminent orchestra, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, in two evenings devoted to his music. Under the baton of the affable Iván Fischer, a brilliant concert climaxing in the psychological opera Bluebeard’s Castle was a triumph.

The first half of the program celebrated Bartók the musicologist. In 1915, he arranged an assortment of Romanian Folk Dances for piano, later orchestrating them. Maestro Fischer greeted the audience, introducing a trio of violin, viola, and bass, to play some of the Romanian folk music in question, as Bartók would have heard it on the ground. Earthy and rustic. 

Photo by Jennifer Taylor

Photo by Jennifer Taylor

Before the applause peaked, Mr. Fischer then brought in the full orchestra for Bartók's relatively genteel, concert-hall-ready version. Much like Chopin's Mazurkas or Johann Strauss's Waltzes, there is a way these dances should feel that can't be notated -- it needs to be intuited. The melodies are rooted in the Hungarian language, and there's no one better to bring these tunes to life than the Budapest Festival Orchestra. This music is in their bones; the way it should be phrased, the way the melodies should be shaped and accented, is second nature. 

Bartók's orchestral palette conveys the inner life and poetry of Hungarian culture underlying the (deceptively) simple tunes -- the emotional implications, the idyllic countryside, pure nostalgia. The finale, a vigorous country dance, exemplifies how his contemporary techniques replicate the rough edges of the folk version. The Budapest players cut through the notes on the page to embody the expression packed within.

Continuing in this vein, to introduce Bartók's Hungarian Peasant Songs, folk singer Márta Sebestyén appeared to sing the unadorned versions of the music before we hear Bartók's. Of these 1933 orchestrations from 1914's piano arrangements, the centerpiece is the divine "Ballad of Borbála Angoli." Márta Sebestyén seemed at home in the Stern Auditorium, an unpretentious conduit to the music of the people, music of an innocent time, or music of joy in the face of adversity.

Photo by Jennifer Taylor

Photo by Jennifer Taylor

The evening’s main course was a riveting account of Bartók's only foray into opera, the expressionistic masterpiece Bluebeard’s Castle. The two-hander was composed in 1911, but didn’t play Carnegie Hall until 1960. Recently presented at the Met Opera on a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s Iolante, the piece is now considered a cornerstone of twentieth century music. This thrilling performance, purely presented as a musical event, sung in Czech with projected English supertitles, does not cry out for scenery. The internal, Freudian nature of the libretto pairs well with Bartók's masterful orchestration to immerse the listener in a world of reflection and irony.

Mr. Fischer faced the audience and uttered the prologue’s mysterious opening verses, setting the ominous mood. Ildikó Komlósi, a rich mezzo-soprano, has sung the role of Judith more than 175 times, and her comfort in the demanding role is evident. Ms. Komlósi’s viscous, clarion legato filling out the contours of Judith’s inexorable journey of acceptance. And Kristztián Cser’s heraldic bass suits the role of Bluebeard perfectly, projecting clearly over the rising tide of the massive orchestration.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is as stupendous as Europe’s finest ensembles — the climactic C Major chord on the opening of the “fifth door” shook the rafters — but they play with a broader, more expressive smile, and a joyful conviviality, in cohoots even in dark, probing music like Bluebeard’s Castle.

***

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