Marche Slave, Op.31
Rachmaninov, orchestrated Kocsis
Eight Songs
Two Pictures, Op.10
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.10

Attila Fekete (tenor)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Zoltán Kocsis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 December, 2005
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Whether as a conductor or pianist, Zoltán Kocsis can be relied upon for interpretative insight and for imaginative programming – both evident at this concert. Even Marche Slave is not the war-horse it once was, and any hackneyed associations were banished in a lithe and energetic account that gave the piece an effective lilt, while not lacking impact when the Imperial Russian Anthem is unleashed at the close.

Kocsis regularly includes his orchestrations of a range of piano and vocal repertoire. Two years ago, Birmingham audiences heard a resourceful arrangement of the non-orchestrated two movements from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, and this concert featured transcriptions of eight songs surveying the breadth of Rachmaninov’s notable contribution to the genre. Conversant as he no doubt is with the piano originals, Kocsis brought out an added emotional dimension – not least the Scriabinesque fancy of “Dreams” and the Tchaikovskian fervour of “Midsummer Nights”, their detailed textures rendered withevocative translucency, though the rhythmic quirks of “The Pied Piper” felt rather too self-conscious in this guise. A singer as yet little known in the UK, Attila Fekete had the requisite ardency for such outpourings as “What Happiness” and “Oh, do not sing these songs” – and, if he sounded resigned rather than world-weary in “To the Children”, his lightness of phrasing in “Daisies” and sense of wistful yearning in “All things pass away” confirmed a tenor equally at home in lyrical and heroic modes of expression.

Bartók is naturally central to Kocsis’s repertoire, and his account of the seldom heard Two Pictures made more of this transitional opus (though, on one level, everything that Bartók wrote over the two decades from 1903 can be heard as transitional) than the Debussy-fied folk-music it can seem to be. Thus ‘In Full Flower’ glowed with sensuous languor, while ‘Village Dance’ was made a veritable fantasy on the rhythmic archetypes that were fast becoming the life-blood of Bartók’s creativity. As much as it anticipates the works to come, the diptych has a stylistic conviction that was fully evident here.

The concert ended with an even greater rarity. Even though it can claim to be the most lauded of his first four symphonies, Dvořák’s Third (1873) hardly ever surfaces live (one wonders when the CBSO last had an opportunity to play it): a pity, as it has the melodic appeal of his mature output and little of the gauche aspects that often affect the music from his formative years. Wagner is uppermost in the noble lyricism of a first movement that Kocsis tackled a little too impulsively for its songfulness fully to register, though the relatively circuitous development and imperious coda benefited from this refusal to indulge. A curious though engrossing conflation of Beethoven and Smetana, the lengthy Adagio was the highlight here – Kocsis maintaining a fluid onward motion that prevented it being diffuse and brought out an affecting pathos. After which, the relatively brief finale (this being Dvořák’s only symphony to omit a scherzo) needed a degree more incisiveness for its effervescence fully to come through – yet its insouciant vigour still made for an admirable foil to those weightier movements that preceded it.

Certainly the audience who had braved the December weather responded positively to this immensely attractive piece, following on from the orchestra’s welcome revival of Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony at the start of the season. Perhaps Kocsis would consider including the Fourth on a subsequent visit – and, if he has yet to orchestrate Bartók’s rarefied Opus 16 songs, he should make the time to do so.

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