Think of composers from Hungary and the first name that springs to mind is Franz Liszt – or Liszt Ferencz as the Hungarians would call him – so it’s only correct that he should feature strongly in the Budapest Spring Festival 130 years after his death.

Franz Liszt © Miklós Barabás
Franz Liszt
© Miklós Barabás
Liszt was one of classical music’s first “superstars”, causing ladies to swoon in his somewhat demonic presence, his hair flying as he tore at the keyboard in ever-increasing whirls of virtuosity. “Lisztomania” was an odd phenomenon – ladies would attempt to tear off bits of his clothing, or would scrabble over his cigar ends, planting them in their cleavages. He cultivated this rock star image. He popularised the recital, playing without a score (something for which Chopin would chastise his pupils) and established the practice of striding on from the wings to take up his place at the piano – a ritual which lasts to this day. He even had the piano placed sideways on the stage so that the audience could admire his profile whilst he was playing! In Paris, Liszt even undertook piano “duels” against Sigismond Thalberg, their virtuosity taking on the mantle of sport.

Most of Liszt’s compositions were, naturally enough, for solo piano, but the Budapest Spring Festival includes a number of his orchestral works too, including the two piano concertos, which should provide Gábor Farkas with the opportunity to demonstrate his prowess at the keyboard. The First Piano Concerto was scornfully dubbed “The Triangle Concerto” by critic Eduard Hanslick on account of the prominent role the percussion instrument plays in the playful third movement. The Second consists of a single movement, split into six distinct sections. József Balog tackles the Fantasy on Hungarian folk melodies, an arrangement for piano and orchestra of the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 14 in F minor. The Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 in C sharp minor (the most famous of the rhapsodies) opens the inaugural concert of the festival, performed by the acclaimed Budapest Festival Orchestra.

Martin Haselböck © Meinrad Hofer
Martin Haselböck
© Meinrad Hofer
Also included in the festival is Christus, Liszt’s single oratorio, following Jesus’ life from birth to resurrection. It is rarely performed in concert, so the chance to hear Staatskapelle Weimar perform it under Liszt expert Martin Haselböck is not one to be missed. Liszt himself settled in Weimar in 1842 and stayed there until 1861. Haselböck and his orchestra have performed and recorded Liszt on period instruments.

Unfortunately, the festival doesn’t include any music by Wagner – who married Liszt’s daughter, Cosima. But opera is represented by Mozart’s Idomeneo, rè di Creta, performed in Müpa’s superb concert hall, in a cast led by Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas in the title role. The cast also includes Serena Farnocchia as Elettra and the splendid Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth as Ilia. Baráth also stars in a much earlier opera. The first performance of Antonio Cesti’s Orontea took place in 1656 and has recently been revived in London. A lively libretto mixes comedy and tragedy. Balázs Máté conducts in the Sir Georg Solti Chamber Hall of the Liszt Academy in two performances.

Jazz plays a strong role in this year’s festival. Improvisations on Liszt’s music forms the basis of Kálmán Oláh’s Jazz Concert on 10th April, while the Budapest Jazz Club hosts four concerts, including the Viktor Tóth Trio and Joey DeFrancesco Trio.

Legendary pianist-turned-conductor Zoltán Kocsis is at the helm for a Müpa concert which concludes with a performance of Rachmaninov’s one act opera Aleko. Bass-baritone Dmitry Ulyanov takes on the title role, a favourite of Feodor Chaliapin.

If Baroque or contemporary music is more your scene, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra have just the antidote, with a concert entitled The Brandenburg Project. Six contemporary composers were commissioned to compose musical commentaries to each of Bach’s famous set of Brandenburg Concertos. This concert includes the responses of Uri Caine and Steven Mackey alongside the Bach works which inspired them.

Among the other international visitors to Budapest are the seasoned Salzburg Mozarteum and its conductor Ivor Bolton (in a programme – naturally enough – of Mozart) and the Filarmonica della Scala, released from the opera pit to play Mahler’s Fifth Symphony under Myung-Whun Chung.

For a complete festival listing, please click here. From Bach to Mahler, from Cesti to jazz improv, Budapest Spring Festival has a wide range. Though make sure you include Liszt in your plans!


Article sponsored by MEC Hungary.