The miraculous Magyar

Zoltan Kocsis was nine when he first heard the music of Bartok. `It seemed to contain everything. I adored it from the first encounter.' By Robert Cowan
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The Independent Culture
Question: How did the world's leading Bartok pianist celebrate Bartok's last birthday? Answer: By conducting Bruckner's Eighth Symphony. True, he did at least programme a Bartok Romanian Dance alongside it, but the gesture - an unusually bold one - is fairly typical of a maverick talent whose innovations have helped transform musical life in his native Hungary.

Zoltan Kocsis learnt his Bruckner in Dresden. "It was some 20 years ago. I was originally scheduled to play Bartok's First Piano Concerto, but the conductor opted out. So we played Bach's D minor Concerto instead, and he conducted Bruckner's Eighth. I can honestly say that hearing that symphony was a real milestone in my musical development."

Still, Kocsis is pretty adamant that he doesn't want to "turn conductor", although, as he adds, "I do from time to time feel the need to conduct. I also organise the chamber music activities of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. We put on coffee concerts - they're sponsored by Hungary's oldest coffee company - which is very useful for the players. I think that an orchestra should consist of soloists as well as `soldiers'."

The Festival Orchestra - which Kocsis co-founded with Ivan Fischer and which is probably Hungary's finest - is already 12 years old. It presents a strongly variegated, well-focused personality that is in marked contrast to Hungary's older orchestras, few of which compare with the best European ensembles. "And do you know why?" asks Kocsis with a sigh. "Because, although we're rich in talented musicians, we have no real orchestral tradition. It's tragic. Musicians would come and go, so there would be no chance of establishing a Budapest-based permanent orchestra. Mahler tried it, but he was kicked out. Then came Nikisch, and he too was kicked out - he wasn't Hungarian enough. Erno Dohnanyi was next. He was a fantastic musician, but not a professional conductor and he certainly wasn't the right man to build an orchestra. Then, after a `golden age' three-year period with Klemperer, Janos Ferencsik was granted absolute power; but he became progressively more lazy and was, in any case, less than devoted to the idea of building an orchestral tradition. That's something we wanted to change - even while Ferencsik was still alive."

Kocsis also expresses great admiration for Tamas Vasary, who has been doing sterling work with the Hungarian Radio Orchestra. "He's a very skilled conductor, more so in fact than he was 10 or so years ago - and he's definitely a better musician than any of his predecessors at the Radio Orchestra."

Kocsis's wide roster of activities has resulted in some unexpected repertoire anomalies. He has conducted Liszt's tone poem Mazeppa, but has never actually played the virtuoso piano concert study on which it was based - at least not in public. "I also conducted the Debussy Fantaisie long before I played the solo part, while in the case of Rachmaninov's Second Concerto, I've both conducted it and played it - with Pletnev conducting our orchestra."

Returning to the subject of Bruckner, Kocsis confesses a marked preference for the Haas edition of the Eighth Symphony - "It's more logical than the Nowak" - but when it comes to Bartok, he's strictly an urtext man. He is currently recording the entire mature piano works for Philips - a project that will occupy around nine CDs. "We'll be including various transcriptions, but not the juvenilia - I mean the stuff composed before 1902."

Philips has just released Bartok: The Piano Box, a four-CD update that includes the first three solo volumes plus a single-disc bonus re-issue of the three concertos. The individual issues have already earned accolades on all sides.

As to Bartok's standing in Hungary, he remains as popular as ever - although the folk-music element in his music doesn't necessarily attract young people. "Anyway, it's compulsory," says Kocsis with a wry smile, "and everything that's compulsory is resented. We didn't like the Russian language because we were compelled to learn it. Practically none of us mastered it - and I regret that now."

And yet Bartok's ethnic vocabulary is by no means restricted to his native soil. "In the Miraculous Mandarin ballet, for example, he came very close to the Second Viennese School, but with much more animal energy. It's also more `eastern' and could easily have been the work of a Bulgarian, Romanian or even Turkish composer. There's nothing in the least Hungarian about Mandarin."

As well as analysing the music's ethnic roots, Kocsis is a stickler for precise interpretation, having spent years studying Bartok's scores and gramophone recordings. He sees the music as "very special, very enigmatic. Bartok somehow seems to have avoided certain emotions, like happiness and calmness. Everywhere, there's tension."

It's a language that appealed to Kocsis from a very early age. "I was, I think, nine years old when I first heard music by Bartok - the Second Violin Concerto. I followed it with the score and can remember thinking how fantastic it was - a piece that starts like that, with a harp, amazing! It seemed to contain everything and I adored it right from the first encounter. Then, when I was about 13, I discovered Contrasts . One of my friends bought me the score, and I tried to play it. Again, I so admired the sophistication of the writing. We were soon playing it together - and it was from that moment that I grew to love every single note that Bartok wrote."

The string quartets, in particular, proved highly influential, although Kocsis responded to them in an oddly round-about fashion. "It's interesting, that - I mean the sequence of the quartets in my life, the works I felt an immediate affinity with, and the ones that took longer. The first quartet that really struck me was the Fifth - then the Fourth, the Third, the Sixth, the Second and, lastly, the First. To be honest, the First is still a tough `bite' for me: it's probably the weakest of the six. Somehow it seems far too long, especially the second movement - which I can't say about the Fifth (another long work) or the Fourth, the wildest of them all!"

Zoltan Kocsis's hunger for quality repertoire, his boundless energy and scholarly approach to texts are offset by a healthily cynical attitude to recording. Of course, he would love to win a secure contract for the Budapest Festival Orchestra (it seems that one is already in the offing) and he loves to listen to important old records; but he's deeply critical of artists who record prematurely, or thoughtlessly. "I know this goes against democracy," he says guardedly, "but I simply wouldn't allow the release of performances that don't attain a certain level. I mean, where will it all lead? Anyone can walk into a studio and make a DAT cassette - at least if he or she finds some company willing to release the CD. OK, we know that a certain amount of this stuff will eventually disappear - but who will be able to establish what is garbage and what is not?"

So does lack of discernment spell lack of musical commitment? "Perhaps. The trouble is that people today haven't enough time to play instruments themselves. They've become indiscriminate consumers - it's rather like being unable to tell the difference between Coca-Cola and a good Bordeaux."

n `Bartok: The Piano Box' (comprising Zoltan Kocsis's recordings of the Piano Works Vols 1-3, plus the Piano Concertos Nos 1-3) is newly released on Philips 446 368-2 (four CDs for the price of three)