There’s a definite Russian flavour to the 39th edition of the Budapest Spring Festival this April, which opens and closes with great operas by Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. Csaba Káel, CEO of Müpa and chair of the executive board organising the festival, took some time to explain more about his planning ethos and the importance of Franz Liszt to Hungarians, whose music is a strong festival thread.

The festival, launched in 1981, opens with Mussorgsky's epic opera Khovanshchina in a concert performance. Why did Csaba Káel choose this work and what lessons does the opera teach us today?

“Diversity of art forms and genres has always been a core value for the Budapest Spring Festival,” Káel explains, “while commitment to quality and innovation is also an essential part of our mission from the beginning, that’s why it has become one of the most important and internationally acclaimed performing art festivals in Central Europe. The intention to come up with something unique and extraordinary for the opening night inspired us to choose Khovanshchina.” Mussorgsky’s opera, which opens with an evocation of Dawn over the Moscow River, is usually presented in one of two versions: either in Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration, or in Dmitri Shostakovich’s edition, published in 1958. But along the banks of the Danube, Káel’s festival is heading down a different route. “We are going to present the opera in János Bojti’s reconstruction, which is a version faithful to the composer’s original intentions, based on the existing relevant sources.”

Müpa Budapest © Tamás Réthey-Prikkel
Müpa Budapest
© Tamás Réthey-Prikkel

Káel explains that the festival has been always focused around certain themes and the cultural diversity of a selected country every year. “In 2019 the cultural treasures of Russia are going to be highlighted, so the programme of the opening night also reflects on the inspiring fusion of Hungarian and Russian culture. The opening concert is not the only event dedicated to Mussorgsky. Estonian pianist-composer Kristjan Randalu has transcribed Pictures at an Exhibition for saxophone and piano duo, together with legendary jazz saxophonist David Liebman.”

The festival also welcomes some giants of the Russian classical world. Yuri Bashmet brings his Moscow Soloists for a programme of string orchestra favourites, including Tchaikovsky’s evocative Souvenir de Florence. The Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra joins the Prague Philharmonic Choir for an evening including Shostakovich’s suite from his film music for Hamlet. “We are proud to have a spectacular closing weekend at the festival,” Káel explains, “with maestro Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra giving a concert performance of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, while Prokofiev’s Cinderella is going the be performed twice by the Mariinsky Ballet at the Erkel Theatre.”

Naturally enough, Franz Liszt looms large over the festival. I ask Mr Káel about the iconic composer’s importance to Hungarians. “Just as Salzburg has Mozart, so Budapest is extremely proud to have Liszt, and the Budapest Spring Festival has a mission to present the works of this genius year after year, showing how revolutionary and complex his music is, and still how relevant to all of us, not just to Hungarians, but to our increasing international audience as well.” The programme is designed to demonstrate the richness of Hungarian culture each year.

Kirill Gerstein, Klára Kolonits © Marco Borggreve / Kaya Ariel Woytynowska
Kirill Gerstein, Klára Kolonits
© Marco Borggreve / Kaya Ariel Woytynowska

“Young pianist Fülöp Ránki presents a fantastic programme dedicated to one of Liszt’s most beautiful symphonic poems, Orpheus. Ránki's repertoire includes several from of Liszt’s rarely played compositions and many of his concertos. This year he will perform the composer’s most popular piano concerto – the First – in the Grand Hall of Liszt Academy.”

Liszt’s choral music is less well known. The Stuttgart Philharmonia Choir bring what Káel describes as an “extraordinary programme” including Christus and the Via Crucis. Under conductor Zsolt Hamar, the Hungarian National Philharmonic also celebrates Liszt with a concert in the wonderful acoustics of the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall which pairs Brahms’ First Piano Concerto (pianist Kirill Gerstein) with Liszt’s dramatic Faust Symphony, with each movement named after one of the characters in Goethe’s legend. Hungarian soprano Klára Kolonits devotes her recital to the Budapest Music Centre to Liszt’s songs.

The festival also attracts some of opera’s greatest international stars. This year sees the visit of the popular Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja who brings some of his favourite arias and songs for a concert with the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra under Pier Giorgio Morandi. Calleja even includes Tchaikovsky’s song None but the lonely heart, a nod to the festival’s Russian theme.

Click here for full festival listings and booking links.

Preview sponsored by the Budapest Spring Festival.