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Review: The Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Library of Congress

Hungarian pianist Jenö Jandó. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

In celebration of the 200th birthday of Franz Liszt, Hungary’s most celebrated composer, the Library of Congress is hosting a festival of concerts devoted to music by him and those he influenced. On Tuesday night, the series continued with a program featuring the works of Béla Bartók, another celebrated son of Hungary. The musicians performing Bartók’s chamber music this evening had special significance, too, as they are all members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, whose North American tour is being presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall this evening.

Violinists János Pilz and Mária Gál-Tamási opened the program with a dozen or so of the duos, BB 104, pieces that were intended on one level for young violinists but that are also endlessly diverting miniatures, especially when played so well by musicians who have been educated in the folk-music-steeped system that Bartók helped put in place. Pilz and Gál-Tamási gave vigor and a bright tone to these pieces, some fresh, others melancholy, and most of them just the sort of sheer fun that is irresistible to young performers. In each piece, Bartók creates a tiny world with boundless melodic fecundity and rhythmic complexity.

Violinist István Kádár, joined by eminent pianist Jenö Jandó, brought a much rawer tone to Rhapsody No. 1, BB 94, lending some heavy-footed folk verve to the plodding march of the first movement—unfortunately accompanied by some squeaky harmonics and screechy sounds. Kádár sounded more comfortable in Contrasts, BB 116, with clarinetist Ákos Ács in the lead. This piece was memorable because of Ács, virtuosic in his solo cadenza and lyrical in the melancholy second movement, interweaving twilight-pale melodies with the violin. Kádár gave a vivid color to the opening of the final movement, which calls for a scordatura passage—an alternative tuning of the violin, for which he had a second instrument to switch in and out.

The evening concluded with a plush rendition of Bartók’s piano quintet, BB 33, a work composed in the late-romantic style during his student years, predating his landmark work collecting folk melodies, a body of music that transformed his style. Violinist Violetta Eckhardt, the concertmaster of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, led the work with forceful tone and sensitivity on first violin. The score is reminiscent of many romantic composers—Brahms and Wagner, especially, while Liszt’s influence is heard in the work’s somewhat ecstatic excesses—and the heroic, almost Tchaikovsky-like finale would feel out of place in Bartók’s later works.