Liszt Fest will run from 8th to 24th October
© Janos Posztos | Müpa
Hungary loves Liszt, its first musical superstar and greatest composer. Liszt was not merely a crowd-pleasing heartthrob pianist: he became a composer and teacher of great depth and variety, which makes him the obvious name to lend to a new festival which explores and exposes events from every corner of music and the arts. The new Liszt Fest International Cultural Festival, organised by Müpa, Budapest’s Palace of Arts, opens its doors on 8th October to an exceptionally diverse fortnight of events across the capital. (Those who argue that Bartók was both more Hungarian and a greater composer can take comfort in the fact that Bartók got Müpa’s wonderful concert hall named after him, whereas Liszt got the airport).

Although the overwhelming majority of Liszt compositions played today are for the piano, he wrote a great deal of sacred music, increasingly so towards the end of his career. The Liszt Fest opens in the Matthias Church, high on the Buda hill which overlooks the city, with his large scale Hungarian Coronation Mass, written for the 1867 coronation of Franz Josef I as King of Hungary. Also on the bill are Liszt’s Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine (its predecessor work) and Allegri’s Miserere and Mozart’s Ave verum corpus (the works which are supposed to have inspired it). Earlier, when Liszt first returned to Hungary from his travels in 1856, he composed a mass for the opening of the Basilica of Esztergom, some 50km up the Danube from Budapest, as the crow flies: you can hear a rare performance of the Missa Solennis (also known as the Esztergom Mass) on 22nd October in the basilica for which it was written, performed by the Pannon Philharmonic and the Hungarian Radio Choir. In between those dates, several Budapest churches will host concerts of his organ music.

If all that religion is too much for you, the festival includes some decidedly profane work. In the “spectacular extravaganza” that is Levente Gyöngyösi’s opera-musical The Master and Margarita, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s surrealist satire, Satan shows up in revolutionary Moscow, with hit man, valet, black cat and vampire in tow. On 9th October, broomsticks will fly and Pontius Pilate and Jesus will appear as you’ve never seen them. Or, with a nod to the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri, you may prefer the view of hell from his Inferno, as presented in Péter Kiss' 10th October concert in the beautiful concert hall at the Liszt Academy, which juxtaposes Liszt’s Dante Sonata with poetry readings and a selection of his works based on the sonnets of Petrarch. The Liszt Academy’s atrium hosts an exhibition entitled “Liszt and Dante”, and there’s more Dante in another spectacular venue (albeit not usually a musical one) when the Hungarian National Choir sing Dante-related works, including four world premières, under the gilded ceiling of Lotz Hall on 18th October.

The Master and Margarita
© Péter Rákossy

Alternatively, get away from religion altogether in the secular world of smugglers, bullfighters and femmes fatales that is Prosper Merimée’s Carmen, as brought to you by Compañía Antonia Gades in their stage show based on Gades and Laura del Sol’s performance in Carlos Saura’s Carmen, one of the great dance films of all time. There’s another GOAT in the shape of Brazilian bossa nova guitarist and singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil, still touring at 80. It’s a family affair, with Gil accompanied by his son and grandchildren. There’s another family affair in the shape of a series of four concerts by Dezső Ránki, one of Hungary’s best known pianists, and his wife Edit Klukon; their son Fülöp Ranki gives his own recital on 16th October.

Before we get on to the rest of the classical programme, let’s be sure to reinforce the idea that this is a festival for cultural omnivores. Musical forms include jazz-classical fusion (the Jazzical Trio on 12th October), folk music from Transylvania (the Danube Art Ensemble) or the Caucasus (PONT Festival), Liszt’s own folk influences (students of the Folk Music Programme of the Liszt Academy), classic rock (Patti Smith) and club music at the Budapest Showcase Hub on 21st-22nd. Two concerts follow on from Müpa’s Composition Competition categories for Electroacoustic (on 14th October) and Small Jazz Formation (on 20th October). The atmospheric under-pool Akvarium Club is putting on a varied evening of singer-songwriting, both guitar- and electronics-based, on 19th October, as well as hosting the 5th Hungarian Music Video Contest on 14th October. The 15th October concert at Müpa defies any attempt at specifying its genre, combining András Keller’s classical ensemble Concerto Budapest with virtuoso gypsy violinist Roby Lakatos and jazz guitarist Ferenc Snétberger.

There are plenty of non-concert events, but you’ll need to speak Hungarian to enjoy the Margo Literary Festival and Book Fair, writer Anita Harag, the Cinemira TEEN film festival or the various Liszt-related musicology conferences (if you don’t, Art Market Budapest at Bálna will be a better bet).

Thomas Hampson
© Jimmy Donelan
To finish, let’s return to the varied classical agenda. Martin Haselböck conducts Bruckner’s Symphony no. 3 in its 1889 version (the composer’s last of many revisions) following a recital of Liszt’s Lieder by Thomas Hampson at Müpa on 12th October, a concert which promises to be one of the highlights of the festival. On October 23rd, in the last concert of the festival, Gábor Hollerung and the Budafok Dohnanyi Orchestra link Liszt’s Les Préludes to Bartók’s Kossuth Symphony to a world premiere entitled To the Hungarians by Roland Szentpáli. There’s chamber music from violinist Barnabás Kelemen and small scale choral music from The Cracow Singers. A concert by the Péter Eötvös Contemporary Music Foundation spotlights the work of Greek composer Georges Aperghis. Last but not least, there’s a double bill of short but dark contemporary operas: Gergely Vajda’s The Transporters, written in 2020, and George Benjamin’s first opera Into the Little Hill, his retelling of the ancient tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

With so many genres and no less than 17 different venues as well as open air spaces in Budapest, the Liszt Fest promises to be one of the most eclectic and interesting new festivals of recent years.

 Click here to see all the Liszt Fest events.

This preview was sponsored by Müpa Budapest