Müpa Budapest is the sensibly shortened title of Művészetek Palotája, the national cultural centre situated on the Danube just south of the centre of the Pest side of Budapest. The building opened in 2005 (as the Palace of the Arts), and was designed by the young Hungarian architects Zoboki, Demeter and Partners. It includes the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall (Bartók Béla Nemzeti Hangversenyterem), the Festival Theatre (Fesztivál Színház), also suitable for smaller scale concerts, several other performing spaces and an outpost of the Ludwig Museum, best known for its Vienna contemporary art gallery. The centre hosts an enormous range of activities throughout the year and, for the past three years, has been running a short early music festival, this year consisting of six events. I was invited to review five of them, between 27 February to 4 March, featuring performers based in Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Budapest.
Hasse: Piramo e Tisbe
Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi
Müpa: Festival Theatre , 27 February 2017
The first event took place in the Festival Theatre (Fesztivál Színház). Designed for speech and drama, it also proved very effective as a small scale music performance space, seating around 460. A substantial acoustic screen (pictured) is used to reduce the size of the large theatrical stage, focussing the sound of musicians and helping to project the sound to the audience. The acoustics are clear, with sufficient reverberation to create an effective music listening environment.
Europa Galante premièred Johann Adolf Hasse’s 1768 two-act ‘intermezzo tragico’, Piramo e Tisbe, at the 2010 Salzburg Easter Festival, and used the same cast for this performance in Budapest. It is Hasse’s penultimate opera, and lies in that stylistically fascinating period of transition between the Baroque, Galant, and Classical styles. It is based on the story of the two ill-fated lovers from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, adapted in the many Romeo and Juliet tales, and parodied by Shakespeare in Midsummer Night’s dream. Hasse adds the role of Tisbe’s father to the unfortunate pair. This concert performance avoided the need for any stage drama or gore (all three end up dead), allowing us to concentrate on the music itself without any directorial interpretations or interventions.
In two acts of about 50 minutes each, Hasse explores a wide range of orchestral colours and textures, making full but rather unadventurous use of the woodwind. All woodwind instruments are treated equally, with only the flutes making much of an independent presence felt. Unusually for such orchestrations, the two horns appear more-or-less throughout, but rarely do other than just add to the harmony. Vocally, the Baroque tradition of da capo arias is replaced by extended sequences of accompanied recitatives, dissolving into arioso passages, arias and duets. The second Act is made up from three such extended sequences, from each of the three characters. Piramo and Tisbe sing alone before coming together for their final duet. Dad has the final word. Both acts seem to just stop, without much musical build up or sense of finality, perhaps explaining why one recording has added dance sequences to the end of the two acts. On this occasion, the hiatus at the end of each half needed a signal from Fabio Bondi to indicate that that was it.
The players of Europa Galante were on excellent form, bringing a lively colour to the orchestral texture in an unforced manner. I did wonder to what extent their sound was disappearing up into the theatre’s fly tower. The solid acoustic screen behind them certainly helped to project the sound towards the audience, but there was nothing above them to keep the sound within the space. In practice, this did not matter, as the balance between the orchestra and the three singers standing at the front of the stage was fine.
The two lovers are both represented by female voices, rather than a castrato. Mezzo Vivica Genaux took the role of the boy Piramo. She gave a powerful and emotionally intense performance, my only quibble being what to me was a rather excessive vibrato, seemingly artificially produced by a visibly quivering lower lip. Without that stylistically (and visually) questionable vocal mannerism, she would have been perfect. Tisbe was sung by soprano Desirée Rancatore, her more stable voice being far better suited to the music. She had an impressive stability of tone over a wide range, excelling in a couple of extended cadenzas, but was visually a bit distracting because of her wafting hands of the sort normally confined to rehearsals or lessons. Her father was sung by the impressive tenor, Emanuele D’Aguanno.
Fabio Biondi directed from a slightly separate and standing first violin position, indicating his wishes by physical movement and the occasional sweep of his bow. He kept the pace between the different sections flowing well. This was a fine performance of an interesting, and little known, work.
Simone Kermes, Cappella Gabetta
Müpa: Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, 1 March 2017
The second concert took place in the adjoining Béla Bartók National Concert Hall. With a capacity of up to 1650 (including stage seating and standing room), it is comparatively small by some international standards (London’s Royal Festival Hall and Barbican Hall seat about 2,500 and 1,900 respectively). It is about the same capacity of Vienna’s Musikverein, built in 1870 and long considered as having one of the finest acoustic around. That comparison is possibly no accident, because it was the Musikverein that the late Russell Johnson (one of the world’s leading acousticians) considered the ideal size. His contribution to the design of the Béla Bartók Hall was one of his last commissions before his death in 2007. Its plan is in the shape of an elongated pear, with the stage at the widest part. Importantly, it is as tall as its widest point, an essential factor in the success of its acoustics. This vast volume allows for a range of acoustic adjustments to be made. The side walls above stalls level are large coloured screens that can be opened onto further hidden volumes, adding up to an additional couple of seconds to the reverberation time if needed. An massive floating canopy can also be raised or lowered to adjust the acoustics and sound reflection from the stage. The hall includes one of the largest mechanical action organs in central Europe.
My introduction to the hall was a performance with the title ‘Tempest’ featuring soprano Simone Kermes and Cappella Gabetta. Several now well-known orchestras have first come to light accompanying a solo singer. On the basis of this performance, Cappella Gabetta (led by Andrés Gabetta) have the ability to be another one of those. Their playing (on period instruments) was impressively crisp and accurate, with a commendable knowledge of period performance practice. They opened with Gluck’s Danse des spectres et des furies (from Don Juan), giving the first chance to hear some outstanding horn playing from Antonio Abeal and Silvia Centomo, that continued throughout the evening. Telemann’s Wassermusik, a homage to the port of Hamburg, featured the two oboists, Thomas Meraner and Marguerite Humber. Cappella Gabetta’s leader Andrés Gabetta featured in two violin concertos, Vivaldi’s L’Estate and Zavateri’s A tempesta di mare, producing some colourful intonation at times.
I had not previously heard of Simone Kermes, but was interested to read her publicity for the concert. This referred to her as a “world-renowned German soprano” who would “beat the most daring extreme sports enthusiasts hands down: like a wingsuit flyer, she leaps from cliffs before gliding, swiftly and surely as the wind, through gaps in the rocks only a few metres wide“; adding that she “captivates her audience with a tempestuous energy that simply cannot be resisted” and that “she is one of only very few in the singing profession able to handle the coloratura fireworks of the Baroque repertoire with such elemental power and perfection“. Her initial appearance did not inspire confidence as, rather than ‘gliding swiftly and surely’, she staggered on to the stage (interrupting the orchestral introduction) on unfeasibly tall high heels and an outfit that made her look like a chrysalis about to hatch, legs first, from a pupae, the wide flaps of the outer layer not quite covering the extreme shortness of her skirt. If the stage had been any higher, she would have suffered damage to her modesty. Launching into Porpora’s Vedrà turbato il mare, she combined her singing with a rather ungainly ‘tipsy Aunty at a wedding’ dance.
For the second half she appeared fully hatched, but sporting even more bizarre shoes, with heels that stopped way above the ground, the minimal degree of structural stability seemingly provided by an extended front platform. How she managed to keep upright, let alone walk, baffled me. Throughout the evening she accompanied her singing with more embarrassing physical antics, bouncing her shoulders up and down, not quite in time to the music, and throwing her head back to add some visual drama to her frequent high notes. Those high notes, along with most of the others, were generally approached by a slither up towards, but rarely actually reaching, the note. Her very fast, albeit slight, vibrato made her voice sound nervous, added to the almost consistently poor intonation. Her breaths were taken, rather loudly, at points that did not seem to be musically appropriate. Her top register was thin, the lower register throaty, with no subtlety of transfer between registers. For several of the pieces she had her head buried in a score, rarely looking up to the audience. She balanced this by some outrageous playing to the audience, including cadenzas that were nearly all arpeggios culminating in a loud, high screech. The only relatively subdued piece of the evening (by Giacomelli) gave her the opportunity to sing without vibrato, but it wasn’t to be. It all rather reminded me of a karaoke evening. Towards the end she announced the ‘We are running late’ and that ‘The programme is too long’, before setting off into her encores, avoiding the risky business of trying to walk off stage in between them. It was, to say the least, an interesting evening.
Marini: Per ogni sorte di strumento; Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale
Bach Consort Wien, Rubén Dubrovsky
Müpa: Festival Theatre, 2 March 2017
Bach Consort Wien’s well-planned programme alternated selections from Monteverdi’s 1640 Selva morale e spirituale with instrumental pieces from Biagio Marini’s 1655 Per ogni sorte di strumento musicale diversi generi di sonate, da chiesa, e da camera. Although the compositional dates are relatively close together, Marini was born 27 years after Monteverdi. Despite the generational gap, the two composers made effective companions: indeed, Marini worked, perhaps briefly, with Monteverdi in St Mark’s Venice in the years around 1615.
In various combinations, the seven singers explored the different moods of Monteverdi’s sacred music. The solo motet Ab æterno ordinata sum was sung by bass Joel Frederiksen, demonstrating an ability to sing some very low notes. Two highlights came with soprano Hanna Herfurtner singing Pianto Della Madonna from Lamento del’Arianna. Her clear and focussed voice explored a range of expression. She was joined by similarly impressive fellow soprano Soetkin Elbers for Et resurrexit and the concluding Laudate Dominim secondo. This featured an oddity when the conductor, Rubén Dubrovsky, picked up a guitar and swung round to face the audience, strumming away to a jaunty little dance. That, combined with his facial expressions, seemed rather inappropriate to the mood of the evening, and the music, but was repeated later in Sanctorum meritis secondo, sung by tenors Jan Petryka and Lorin Wey. I had earlier been surprised to see him conducting (complete with baton and large gestures) a sole theorbo player sitting right in front of him. At the time, the soprano soloist was standing behind him, facing the audience, so this seemed a little excessive.
The full consort of seven singers (one alto was not present) made an impressively coherent and unforced sound. The instrumentalists were on similarly fine form. The strings (two violins, viola, cello, and bass) were to the left and the consort of two cornettos, three sackbuts, and a dulcian to the right. The choice of instruments to accompany each of the Monteverdi pieces was apt.
Baroque Sonatas by Veracini, Leclair, and Bach
Róza Lachegyi violin, Zsolt Szabó viola da gamba, Augustin Szokos harpsichord
Müpa: Glass Hall, 3 March 2017
Alongside the main evening concerts of the early music festival there came the chance to hear some of the younger members of Budapest’s musical scene, in a late afternoon concert in Müpa’s Glass Hall, an all-purpose space overlooking the Danube. Róza Lachegyi, violin, Zsolt Szabó, viola da gamba, and Augustin Szokos, harpsichord, played music by Veracini, Leclair, and Bach. They opened and closed with examples of Veracini imaginative writing, contrasting pieces from his 1721 and 1744 collections.
The opening Sonata prima in G minor (Op.1) starts with an extended Overture followed by an Aria based on a simple melody with sinuously chromatic descending passages and forte and piano markings. The lively syncopated Paesana movement featured a flurry of repeated notes, in contrast to the following elegant Minuet. A bouncy Giga completed the Sonata. Leclair’s Sonata No. 1 in E minor (Op.2) gave them a chance to demonstrate their understanding of French, as opposed to Italian, musical style. For my taste, their approach was a little suspect, particularly in the opening Adagio (pictured), where the viola da gamba and harpsichord interpreted the repeating bass line (built on a descending chromatic fourth, a strong clue to the mood of the piece) in too forceful a manner, in contrast to the gentle violin melody, which was consequently overpowered. The other three movements didn’t really explore the very different style of French music, sounding too similar to the Veracini Sonatas.
They redeemed themselves in the next two pieces, an interesting transcription of the Fuga a 2. Clav. from Bach’s Art of Fugue, played in its Forma recta and Alio modo Forma inversa versions. This worked well, the clarity of the four voices being integral to Bach’s writing. Unfortunately two women sitting close to me decided to start chatting to each other, seemingly immune to stares from several in the audience, and continued until the end of the concert.
They finished with the last of Veracini’s Sonate accademiche, in D minor, with its curious structure of all movements (Passagallo, Capriccio cromatico, Adagio, Ciaccona) all based on the same descending fourth heard in the Leclair Adagio. The opening Passagallo is marked Largo assai e come stà, ma con grazia, and opens with the solo violin, beautifully played by Róza Lachegyi, a student at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.
Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, György Vashegyi
Müpa: Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, 4 March 2017
It was appropriate that the festival finished with a Budapest based choir and orchestra, albeit with imported solo singers supplied by their cooperating partner, the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles (CMBV). This is the third such collaboration between the CMBV and the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra, and was sponsored by the Institut français de Budapest. It proved to be the undoubted highlight of the whole week of concerts.
Naïs was composed in 1749 just months after news reached Paris of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle that concluded the War of the Austrian Succession and confirmed Marie Theresa’s succession to the Hapsburg thrones as Queen of Hungary and Archduchess of Austria. Great Britain had allied with the Hapsburg Austrians and Hungary, Saxony and the Dutch Republic against France and Prussia. Rameau gave it the subtitle of “Opera for Peace”, and it seems likely that the opening Prologue, depicting a tussle between Jupiter and Neptune, depicts Louis XV of France and the British King George II coming to the agreement that concluded a war that had covered many parts of the world, including America and India.
The subsequent three acts (here given in a concert performance) explore the mythical story of the nymph Naïs. It takes place during the Isthmian Games, which are dedicated to Neptune. As Gods are wont to do, Neptune has disguised himself as a mere mortal in an attempt to win the heart of Naïs over the attentions of two rivals. At risk of being attacked by his rivals, he reverts back to his godly form and calls upon the waves to destroys them. He then whisks Naïs off to his underwater palace and turns her into a Goddess. Rameau takes musical delight in depicting the antics of the Gods and the Isthmian Games, with scenes of wrestling, boxing and athletics alongside ballet interludes and depictions of nature and the underwater world.
It has one of the most imaginative uses of instrumentations of the whole Baroque era, with a prominent role for a musette, a little French bagpipe with under-arm bellows and a pleasantly plangent tone, here played by Patrick Blanc. Percussionists are usually safely tucked away at the back of the orchestra but on this occasion Zoltán Varga was given a little stage of his own, front right from which to peddle his wares. These included the usual tambourines, triangles etc., but also the interesting sound of a cloth-covered drum and a wind sheet. There were several chances for the (mostly female) instrumentalists of the Orfeo Orchestra to shine, including bassoonists Dóra Király and Gergely Farkas, Vera Balogh and Kapolcs Kovács on flute and piccolo, Pier Luigi Fabretti and Edit Kőházi on oboes and recorders, and, as leader, violinist, Simon Standage. I was also impressed with Flóra Fábri’s sensitive harpsichord continuo playing, giving just the right amount of support to the singers, alongside cellist Anna Scholz and bassist György Janzsó.
The 26 strong Purcell Choir was very impressive in the wide range of choruses, clearly understanding the complex issue of French Baroque ornamentation and singing with an unforced clarity. Neither the choir or orchestra are newcomers to this repertoire, and conductor György Vashegyi (pictured) has very clearly absorbed the style into his bloodstream. His conducting was exemplary, with clear direction and a willingness to put his baton down. The soloists, all impressive, were headed by Chantal Santon-Jeffery as Naïs and Reinoud Van Mechelen as Neptune, together with Daniela Skorka as an attractively voiced Flore, Florian Sempey as Jupiter/Tirésie, Thomas Dolié as Pluton/Télénus, and Manuel Nuñez-Camelino as Astérion.
György Vashegyi and the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra have made a number of recordings, including several of French music. They are now recording Naïs for a future release worth looking out for. This performance was live streamed internationally.
In addition to these five concerts in the Early Music Festival, I was also able to get to two other events on the intervening evenings.
Grigory Sokolov, piano
Müpa: Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, 28 February 2017
Mozart: Sonata No. 16 in C, K545, Fantasy No. 4 in C minor, K475, Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K457
Beethoven: Sonata No. 27 in E minor, op. 90, Sonata No. 32 in C minor, op. 111
I don’t know if Grigory Sokolov has ever played the historic fortepiano, but he played this concert grand as though he had, particularly in the opening Mozart Sonata 16, K545, its childlike simplicity being to the fore. He clearly feels it remiss of Mozart and Beethoven not to have written 50 minutes long pieces, and so segued all three Mozart works and the two Beethoven Sonatas into two continuous sequences, one in each half, each lasting around 50 minutes. The only slight breaks in the music came, not in between pieces, but just before the slow movements. His lightness of touch and sparing use of power was only occasionally disrupted by sudden sforzandos, attacked from a very high hand position. He is apparently known for giving many encores, but on this occasion limited himself to just five, by Schubert, Chopin, Rameau and Schumann – all but one, rather heavy fare as encores usually go. There was a capacity audience to hear him, including many people sitting within arms length on the stage.
Dracula’s Last Dance
Hungarian National Dance Ensemble
Müpa: Festival Theatre. 3 March 2017
Slightly out of my usual musical experience was a performance of Dracula’s Last Dance, given by the Hungarian National Dance Ensemble. A colourful combination of straight theatre, music theatre, and dance, it was set in a Transylvanian village inhabited by both Hungarians and Romanians, and included music from both folk traditions, played love on and off stage.
With one fairly obvious exception, I was impressed with the musical standard of all the events in the Early Music Festival, and of the splendid facilities of Müpa Budapest. One interesting addition to the public foyer spaces was an electronic organ, accessible to anybody, and linked to information about the organ in the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall. This attracted adults and children. The stops produced a variety of sound combinations, rather than being like normal organ stops.