Love and death are the twin themes of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1737 opera Castor et Pollux, which makes it more than just another period piece for Hungary’s Orfeo Orchestra and Purcell Choir. It’s a touchstone for the groups’ founder and director, Györgi Vashegyi, who may be Rameau’s biggest fan outside of France.

György Vashegyi performs with the Orfeo Orchestra and Purcell Choir
© Jázon Kóvats

“I fell in love with Rameau thirty years ago, through Castor et Pollux,” Vashegyi says. “I think he’s one of the universal geniuses in European musical history, on the same level as Bach, Mozart and Haydn.”

The death part goes back thirty years as well, to the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Though that opened up a new chapter in personal and political freedom, it meant the collapse of culture in countries like Hungary, where the arts relied almost entirely on state support.

“We were in an empty period after communism,” Vashegyi says. “The system was very poor and there was no money for culture. It was necessary to build a completely new structure, otherwise we would have no chance.”

Vashegyi has devoted himself almost entirely to that over the past three decades, starting with founding a dedicated early music ensemble and chorus. A proposal that he wrote in 1998 to create an early music center finally reached fruition in 2021 with the establishment of the Haydneum, a foundation devoted to research, publishing and performances with offices at Esterházy Palace, where Joseph Haydn worked from 1766 to 1790. Vashegyi has also mounted an effort to tap the vast musical archives of his homeland, which run to 2,000 volumes of scores in the National Library in Budapest alone.

“We are very lucky to have a rich musical heritage in Hungary,” Vashegyi says. “We’re choosing the best pieces and digitizing them and performing them and recording them and taking them on tour. We have at least fifty years of work ahead of us.”

György Vashegyi
© Andrea Felvégi

Vashegyi is guiding that work from several platforms. Along with running his orchestra and chorus, which are now resident ensembles at the Haydneum, he is president of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and, since November, interim music director of the Hungarian National Philharmonic. Above all, he remains an energetic advocate for the music he loves, with two concert performances of Castor et Pollux scheduled in coming weeks – one in Budapest, and the second two days later at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, as part of NTR ZaterdagMatinee. “To me, it’s the equal of a masterpiece like the St. Matthew Passion,” he says.

Vashegyi, 52, credits Johann Sebastian Bach with launching his career. “I was enchanted by his music, that’s why I decided to become a professional musician,” he says. He was an adept student, learning violin, oboe, recorder and becoming a skilled continuo player on the harpsichord. He was also ambitious, wrangling visas at a time they were nearly impossible to get to take master classes from Baroque specialists like British harpsichord virtuoso John Toll and German conductor Helmuth Rilling. It was at a Rilling workshop in Stuttgart in the summer of 1988 that Vashegyi met John Eliot Gardiner and had an opportunity to see his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists perform live, an experience that changed his life.

“After seeing his groups and how they worked, I started studying conducting at the Liszt Academy that fall with the idea that I would like to establish something similar in Hungary,” he says.

There was no lack of interest or talented players. Early music had flourished under communism with groups like Capella Savaria and Concerto Armonico, and individual stars like harpsichordist Miklós Spányi and singer Mária Zádori. But with no funding, rebuilding was a long and daunting task. “We had no idea what we were getting into,” Vashegyi says. “It took years of hard work and sacrifice.”

Which makes his initial accomplishments even more impressive. The Purcell Choir made its debut on May 1st 1990, the same day a freely elected Hungarian Parliament met for the first time, with a concert performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The Orfeo Orchestra debuted a year later with the first-ever full-length performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in Hungary. These set a template for the groups’ repertoire, which focuses on revitalization and discovery.

György Vashegyi rehearses with the Orfeo Orchestra and Purcell Choir
© Jázon Kóvats

“We work in three categories,” Vashegyi says. “The first is well-known masterpieces that were never performed on period instruments in Hungary, like Purcell’s Fairy-Queen. The second is pieces that were part of the standard repertoire in other parts of Europe but never played at all in Hungary, by composers like Couperin, Handel and Telemann. And the third is ‘absolute discoveries’ that have not been played since the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.”

Among the latter are works by Joseph Haydn’s younger brother Johann Michael, for whom Vashegyi is greatly enthusiastic. He has recorded two of the younger Haydn’s oratorios with his ensembles, and with 340 volumes of his scores in Hungarian archives, there’s plenty more to choose from. Vashegyi is also an enthusiastic promoter of Gregor Joseph Werner, a composer who preceded Joseph Haydn in the Esterházy’ service. “I firmly believe that giving Werner his due and revealing his life’s work will be one of the greatest discoveries in the European early music repertoire over the next decade. He is the equal of Handel’s best work,” Vashegyi says.

Esterházy Palace, Fertőd
© Péter Szvitek | Wikimedia Commons

Very early on, Vashegyi also recognized the practical and symbolic value of Esterházy Palace and the legacy of Joseph Haydn’s work there. “We decided to build a cult around Haydn,” he says. His ensembles have performed and recorded Haydn’s music at Esterházy Palace regularly since 1991, including a monumental seven-year project launched in 2002 to perform all 92 of the symphonies the composer wrote before embarking for London in 1791. For Vashegyi, the palace represents an ideal synthesis of site and sound.

“This is the Versailles of Central Europe, you can’t compare it to anything else,” he says. “We’re in the ceremonial hall where most of Haydn’s symphonies were probably performed, with the same number of musicians Haydn used, playing the same instruments. It’s a unique combination.”

Castor et Pollux will be the sixth Rameau opera recorded by Vashegyi (at the upcoming performance in Budapest) with his ensembles. In historical terms, it is arguably not the most significant. Rameau’s first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, which premiered in 1733, broke the norms for French opera established by the reigning king of the genre, Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Hippolyte was like an atomic bomb in French music history,” Vashegyi says. “Rameau found himself in the middle of a huge controversy, accused of not respecting Lully. I think in many ways Castor, written four years later, represents Rameau’s answer to his critics. He wanted to show them that he was able to do Lully’s style of opera, mixed with his own style. He could create supreme art while still respecting tradition.”

György Vashegyi conducts
© Jázon Kóvats

Most importantly for Vashegyi, the music is incomparable. “It’s not revolutionary, but I think it’s some of the most brilliant music ever written in France,” he says. “It has such incredible, rare beauty, it’s really very special.”

Rameau revised several of his operas for subsequent revivals, including Castor, which premiered in a second version in 1754. That has become the version most often performed and recorded, which is exactly why Vashegyi is using the 1737 version.

“We are not generalists, we are always looking for music that has not been played,” he says. “I think one of the best things we’ve done for Rameau up to now has been our recording of Dardanus, which included 40 minutes of music that had never been recorded.”

And Vashegyi has no qualms about taking such specialized music on the road.

“There’s no risk in performing Castor, because the music is so magnificent,” he says. “It will be a huge pleasure bringing it to the Concergebouw. I love the hall and I love the audiences there, which are fantastic. I’m very happy to have the opportunity to show them one of my most-loved pieces, music which is very close to my heart.”

György Vashegyi conducts Castor et Pollux at Bartók National Concert Hall on Thursday 2nd March, and the Concertgebouw on Saturday 4th March. This interview was sponsored by NTR ZaterdagMatinee.