“Did you get your hearing aid to work, Ian?” “I didn’t need it in the end!” Just one scrap of conversation overheard in the lobby of Cadogan Hall after last night’s Hungarian bonanza, which – and I’m inclined to agree with Ian – was not lacking in oomph. Alexander Shelley took command of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in this, the first in a three-part series of concerts entitled Seeking New Horizons, featuring a folksong-infused programme of Kodály and Bartók, plus a triumphant Liszt Piano Concerto no. 1 with BBC New Generation Artist Mariam Batsashvili.

Alexander Shelley
© Dwayne Johnson

Proceedings kicked off with Kodály’s Dances from Galánta. A nervous opening section gathered momentum as the RPO settled into the syncopated rhythms and high-kicking oompahs of the four Gypsy folksongs – each originating from the now-Slovakian town in which Kodály spent “seven happy years”. The work is his rambunctious tribute to a provincial Hungarian childhood, and under Shelley’s vigorous baton the RPO certainly captured some of Kodály’s nostalgia – the sweeping string tuttis in the first dance begat shivers – though some tardy entrances left one wishing more time had been spent on details.

Robert Schumann, on hearing the first performance of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto in 1855, marvelled at how the Hungarian gallant had “developed a new and brilliant way of welding the orchestra and piano together”. Liszt’s remarkable innovations were made new again under the deft touch of pianist Mariam Batsashvili, who played with such measured intensity and clarity as to make the great man proud. 

The RPO matched Batsashvili’s potency note for note – each repetition of that wonderfully chromatic opening theme plowed enthusiastically into the front row. Special mention to clarinettist Thomas Verity who danced around the piano with a vital dose of serenity and elegance. Upon conclusion whoops and bravos echoed around the hall, and the young Batsashvili obliged the willing audience with a Paderewski encore that revealed a gentler side to her virtuosity. 

Bartók emerged in all his titillating glory after the interval, as Shelley unleashed the iconic Concerto for Orchestra on the audience. This, the ultimate summation of a life’s work, is Bartók’s most performed (and curiously accessible) orchestral work. Throughout its five movements the RPO treated us to the extended armoury of Bartók musical trademarks: Hungarian rhythms and phrasing, glistening ‘night music’, bowel-tingling brass, all wrapped up in an unusually tonal cocoon. It would seem they saved their best until last. Power, accuracy and passion exuded from each player, not least the hungry pack of violas who performed their pungent tutti passages with relish.

Hungarian folk music received somewhat of a boon in the UK this summer with Iván Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra delivering what was perhaps the highlight of the 2018 BBC Proms season. Whilst the RPO would be hard pressed to match such a performance, last night they presented a concert that would make any Hungarian proud. Even, apparantly, if they'd forgotten their hearing aid.