With our Piano Month coming to a close and our Competitions Month about to start, I’ve been talking to a lot of experts about young musicians, all of whom say the same thing: what they’re looking for is an artist who grabs their attention and speaks to them (notably, none of them have been able to express in words exactly what it is that achieves this). So it was fun to come to a concert at the “Discovery Series” at Budapest’s Palace of Arts (aka “Müpa”) to hear two very different young pianists play two very different Beethoven concertos.

Ke Ma © Pályi Zsófia, Müpa
Ke Ma
© Pályi Zsófia, Müpa

The pianists could not have asked for a better environment in which to display their wares. The Miskolc Symphony Orchestra may not exactly be a household name outside Hungary, but from the first notes of our curtain-raiser, Beethoven’s Leonore Overture no. 3, it was clear that they were on good form: the sound is an old-fashioned, richly blended one and, under the watchful eye of veteran conductor Tamás Gál, who cut a rather benign figure on the podium, they were deft in their handling of changes of tempo and their crescendi. If a conductor gets the balance right, Müpa’s Béla Bartók Concert Hall can make a good orchestra sound like a great one: the string wash gained warmth but never turned to mud. The intervention of off-stage trumpet was particularly appealing, with the underlying murmur of cellos and bases glorious to hear in its detail.

Of the two young pianists, China’s Ke Ma was the one who – to echo the words of all those experts – captured my attention. Her technique is impressive, with the semiquaver runs in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major played with perfect evenness. But what made this more than a technical exercise was her ability to extract the melody implied in those runs into a proper cantabile, and also to vary the pace and dynamics enough to inject urgency into her playing. The combination of super-clean articulation, a real sense of dramatic edge and carefully judged interplay between the soloist and a sympathetic orchestra made the first movement into a thing of real excitement. A slow tempo was chosen for the second movement which became a touch laboured for my taste, but we were back on track for the third, with the orchestra unleashing plenty of well-rounded power.

Ke Ma chose William Bolcom's The Serpent's Kiss for her encore, playing with verve and fun and, at one point, even trying to get the audience to clap the rhythm in between phrases (we were, I’m afraid, ignominiously bad). But it stamped her performance of a pianist prepared to be a little different, who may not be the finished article yet but is definitely on her way.

Apor Szüts © Pályi Zsófia, Müpa
Apor Szüts
© Pályi Zsófia, Müpa

Hungarian Apor Szüts had a more difficult task in the first half, in that Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major is a lovely piece of music but really doesn’t match the body and depth of the Fourth. Szüts’s playing was elegant, debonair and technically accomplished. But I suspect that his strongest talent lies elsewhere. Szüts is an active composer who, at only 24, has already written his first opera, and he played a cadenza that he wrote himself, which really made me sit up and listen. Owing rather more to Liszt or Rachmaninov than to Beethoven, it was a real piece of pianistic fantasy, which still led us neatly back into the concerto. My attention now captured, I enjoyed the delicious calm with which he played the second movement and the good pace and super-accurate fingerwork of the third.

For his encore, Szüts chose Gershwin’s The Man I Love. Both pianists in this concert, therefore chose jazzy encores which pleased the crowd; both left us with sense that we’d seen young artists with plenty of promise.

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