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Hungary Revisited At The Konzerthaus Berlin

The cycle "All'Ongarese" was performed at the Konzzerthaus Berlin last Friday under its future Music Director and Chief Conductor, Ivan Fischer. Christian Nielinger/Konzerthaus Berlin hide caption

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Christian Nielinger/Konzerthaus Berlin

The cycle "All'Ongarese" was performed at the Konzzerthaus Berlin last Friday under its future Music Director and Chief Conductor, Ivan Fischer.

Christian Nielinger/Konzerthaus Berlin

The concert cycle "All'Ongarese" augurs promisingly for the Konzerthaus Berlin under its future Music Director and Chief Conductor Ivan Fischer, who has set out to stress a common tradition of Slavic repertoire as he enters the position next season.

Among several new initiatives recently unveiled under the motto "Open," the cycle, which took place February 18 -26, explored Hungarian and Hungarian-inspired music from Brahms to contemporary composers.

The catastrophic political events of the 20th century and complex cultural shifts have shrouded many turn of the century composers in obscurity, and nowhere has this been felt more than in Eastern Europe, a part of the world once strongly defined by its musical culture.

A case in point is Sandor Veress, a student and research assistant of Bartok as well as a disciple of Kodaly who spent the second half of his life in Switzerland. While he trained well-known composers such as Ligeti and Kurtag, his own music is rarely performed.

The Swiss oboist, composer, and conductor Heinz Holliger, who also counts among his students, made a guest appearance at the Konzerthaus to conduct Veress' "Concerto for Piano, Strings and Percussion" (1950-2) alongside works by Liszt and Bartokin, a concert entitled "Heimatfern" (far from the homeland) on February 23.

Veress' concerto provides a revelation in the development of Hungarian music. Complex polyphony, wistful folkloristic motives, and wild rhythms directly evoke Bartok's late style, while eerie, shimmering string textures in the second "Andante" movement foreshadow a signature technique of Ligeti.

Structurally, the work unfolds in a chain of musical material, with the pianist (Alexander Lonquich) often occupying his own realm while the orchestra responds in kind rather than providing accompaniment. Now playful, now ruminating in searing nostalgia, the music never settles into complacency.

The Konzerthaus Orchestra gave an unusually clean, energetic performance under Holliger. Lonquich brought a light, introspective touch to lyrical passages while handling rapid, wide chordal spans deftly. He offered Debussy's prelude "Feux d'artifice" (1912-13), whose fiery virtuosity recalled the closing pianistic passages of Veress' concerto, as an encore.

The Swiss émigré also left behind an orchestral transcription of Liszt's "Hungarian Historical Portraits" (1956), a cycle of musical monuments to prominent literary figures. Holliger chose three movements, herein their German premiere, to open the program.

The demonic fervor one more readily associates with Liszt cedes to weeping lyricism and sparser textures in the mournful dedication to the poet and 19th-century revolutionary Sandor Petofi, while a movement for the composer and conductor Mihaly Mosonyi, a contemporary a friend of Liszt, reveals the inebriating influence of Wagner in endless melodies, richly orchestrated strings, and a passing evocation of a harmonic sequence in the "Parsifal" overture. While the Konzerthaus Orchestra strings' section harbors a slightly brittle quality and the winds could have been more accurate, the ensemble created pathos with a bold, expressive sound.

Closing the program was Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra," commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra two years before the composer's death in 1945.With its twist on the traditional form requiring a soloist and orchestral accompaniment, the work is a clear antecedent to Veress' concerto.

Bartok's buoyant melodies and colorful orchestration also depart from the highly complex, less accessible textures of other late works, nostalgically quoting passages from his opera "Bluebeard's Castle" (1911) while brimming with folk tunes in the final movement before ending on a note of brass-blaring, life-affirming power. The orchestra's rhythms were not as crisp as one would hope, particularly in the opening movement, yet the music danced with vibrant character under Holliger, instilling a taste for Hungary's infectiously rich tradition.