CBSO/Zoltán Kocsis

Le Tombeau de Couperin [orch. composer and Kocsis]
Viola Concerto
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Tabea Zimmermann (viola)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Zoltán Kocsis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 March, 2004
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Long recognised as the finest Hungarian pianist of his generation, Zoltán Kocsis has enjoyed a parallel career as conductor; notably with the Hungarian National Philharmonic, he has been its Music Director since 1998. His debut with the CBSO also provided an opportunity to hear him as an arranger – namely of the two movements Ravel did not orchestrate from his piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin.

The suite as arranged in 1919 has long been among Ravel’s most performed works, though the follow-through of movements is not ideal either in balance or contrast. Certainly these aspects emerge more persuasively when all six movements are given – and though the Fugue, abstract to the point of being almost an exercise, seems as anomalous to the whole as it does in the piano original, Kocsis’s orchestration for wind with discreet additions from horns and trumpets is undeniably appealing. Even more striking is his ’no holes barred’ approach to the Toccata, summoning a battery of percussion to articulate the musical flow as well as rounding off the work with a flourish. The thought occurred that omitting the Fugue would create a five-movement suite of a formal and expressive poise such as neither the piano nor existing orchestral suite has. Whatever the case, Kocsis’s orchestrations are sensitive and idiomatic, and work well in context. The CBSO responded ably throughout: not least oboist Emanuel Abbühl, with his concertante-style role in three of the movements.

Although a far from unknown proposition, Bartók’s Viola Concerto has only a tenuous place even in the modest viola repertoire – Tibor Serly’s realisation having received some harsh criticism since its premiere four years after the composer’s death. Two other performing editions have appeared over the last decade, though without markedly altering either balance between soloist and orchestra or the content of each movement. And, with a substantial sonata-type Moderato connected – via brief anticipatory interludes – to two short, etude-like movements, the formal balance is an unequal one.

Yet listening to Tabea Zimmermann’s plangent tone in the intense Adagio religioso (much darker in mood than the similarly-titled movement of the Third Piano Concerto, composed immediately before), and her darting virtuosity in the dance-like Allegro vivace is to be reminded that Serly, a confidante of Bartók in his last years, was in a position to draw the line between faithful realisation and creative completion – and knew how to draw that line to the benefit of the piece. The first movement was tightly drawn and not in the least rhapsodic, its underlying tension carrying across the work as a whole. In short, Zimmermann’s imposing playing and Kocsis’s keen marshalling of orchestral detail gave the piece a presence it has often lacked in performance, and a vindication long overdue.

Kocsis’s interpretative credentials were no doubt in evidence in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. ’No doubt’ because this was as uninflected and unmannered a performance – if never literal in the sense of non-involvement – as one could expect to hear. At 39 minutes, there can have been few faster – though, a rather too headlong approach to the first movement’s development aside, there was no sense of overt haste. That opening movement was powerful but never histrionic, with Kocsis seemingly aware that too portentous a manner leaves little in reserve for what follows. The Andantino was soulful without becoming mawkish, and the pizzicato Scherzo was characterful at a relaxed tempo. Kocsis ensured the finale had verve without overkill, and if the climactic return of the ’fate’ motto can be more implacably underlined, it ensured that the triumphal close was no empty gesture. A bracing reading, then, and it would be worth hearing Kocsis in other Tchaikovsky symphonies.

As it would in other orchestral repertoire. Those curious to hear his ’completed’ Tombeau should turn to a recent disc featuring orchestrations by and of Debussy and Ravel (Hungaroton HCD32106): an enjoyable miscellany that confirms Kocsis as an arranger and conductor of no mean standing.

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