Zoltán Kocsis and the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra – Berlioz & Schubert – Lovro Pogorelich plays Rachmaninov

Benvenuto Cellini – Overture
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Lovro Pogorelich (piano)

Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra
Zoltán Kocsis

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 20 April, 2012
Venue: Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, Palace of Arts, Budapest, Hungary

Zoltán Kocsis. ©Andrea FelvegiZoltán Kocsis has been music director of the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra since 1997 – and on this evidence has enjoyed capacity audiences for the concerts held in the magnificent Béla Bartók Concert Hall, a spacious and colourful arena of great height and depth, with a surprisingly clear acoustic given its size. The partnership of conductor and orchestra carries with it a good deal of affection, judging by the exchanges between conductor and orchestra at the end of a programme that offered potentially very good value for a relatively modest outlay, tickets generally costing less than £10.00 – or 3,300 Hungarian Forints.

Kocsis began with a brightly coloured performance of the Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, one that caught the exuberance of the fast music as well as the strange diversions of the quieter material. It was immediately apparent that the strings were well drilled, and the woodwinds showed off an attractive, slightly rugged sound. The faster music had rhythmic drive, Kocsis careful to let the more sparsely scored passages come through too.

Lovro Pogorelich. Photograph: Zoran VuletićHowever, nothing quite prepared us for what followed. With the name Pogorelich it is fair to assume a connection between Lovro and Ivo and that is indeed the case, for Lovro is the younger of the two brothers by twelve years. They share a fiendish ability to cover the keyboard, but there also appears to be common ground in their view of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Here it was simply too extreme to allow proper appreciation of the music. This was by some distance the oddest performance of the Rachmaninov this reviewer has had the misfortune to hear – and yet there were still some moments to treasure, such as the woodwind solos and some of the more-intimate asides, where Pogorelich seemed to forget he was in our company. Too often this performance veered dangerously toward farce. The pianist’s demeanour walking to the piano suggested such a thing might be about to happen, his slow-motion swagger an indication that here was a musician determined to speak his own mind. And so he did, with pronounced rubato that sold Kocsis and the orchestra a dummy on several occasions, and when the first movement theme was proudly announced, it was played as if in a straightjacket. The slow enjoyed more freedom, but there were moments where things threatened to grind to a standstill: it was only Kocsis prompting the orchestra that kept things going. Conversely the finale’s cadenza was a whirlwind, Pogorelich showing the potential for fireworks – but all too often the speeds chosen were as slow as his walk. As an encore he gave a beautifully rendered piece, again by Rachmaninov.

All was redeemed after the interval with a very fine performance of Schubert’s ‘Great C major’ Symphony that seized every opportunity to show the capabilities of this orchestra. The strings were uniform of ensemble and tone, balanced ideally with the woodwind, and the opening horn tune was articulate of phrase. Kocsis opted against a repeat in the first movement; a shame but not destructive. The slow movement was anything but, with a real spring to the bass strings as they set the tempo, but Kocsis made the approach work, the sprightly oboe theme probably not what Schubert would have wanted but working as a slow and sombre dance. To counter this, the scherzo had to be quicker still, but the strings were comfortably in control of the figurations, the conductor getting his results through little more than nods of the head and darts of the eye. The finale was fast, observing the repeat this time. What shone through this very enjoyable performance was a clear love of the piece for conductor and orchestra alike, given with an attractive and occasionally earthy, outdoorsy sound. The final pages were well won, the sprightly performance having kept on its toes throughout – the musical equivalent of spring in the air.

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