Opened in 2005, the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, which lies at the heart of the Müpa Budapest cultural centre, is envied by most of the classical music world. Acclaimed by performers and audiences alike for its “crystalline acoustic”, the 1,656-capacity hall attracts some of the world’s greatest artists, as evidenced by browsing through its 2019–20 season.

Béla Bartók National Concert Hall
© János Posztós | Müpa, Budapest

Müpa’s season opens with Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony – possibly the ideal test of any hall’s acoustics. Spanning six movements – the first movement alone is 30 minutes long – it is a gargantuan work, the longest symphony in the standard repertoire. Mahler requires similarly huge forces – a huge orchestra, soloist, choir and children’s choir, along with an off-stage posthorn in the Scherzo, which the conductor has to balance carefully to sound just far enough away. Zubin Mehta is the conductor facing the challenge of holding all these forces together when he opens the new season. Thankfully, he will be conducting the Israel Philharmonic, the orchestra of which he has been Music Director for Life since 1981 – a post from which he steps down the following month.

Zubin Mehta
© Attila Nagy | Müpa, Budapest

Mahler originally gave titles to each of the Third’s six movements, such as “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”, “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me” and “What the Angels Tell Me”. Originally, he planned a seventh movement – “What the Child Tells Me” – but he employed this to end his next symphony, the Fourth, under the title “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life). Christiane Karg sings this child-like vision of heaven – full of bread, wine, asparagus and string beans – when the Berlin Philharmonic performs the Fourth under new chief conductor Kirill Petrenko next May. Petrenko also programmes the Rückert-Lieder – a glimpse into Mahler’s soul – sung by Elisabeth Kulman.

Müpa’s season also features other top international orchestras. Paavo Järvi takes up his post as chief conductor of the Tonhalle Zürich next season and brings his Swiss orchestra to Budapest with a mouth-watering programme of Bartók, Copland’s Clarinet Concerto (with star soloist Martin Fröst) and Tchaikovsky’s fate-filled Fifth Symphony. Meanwhile, Christian Thielemann and his Staatskapelle Dresden – one of the world’s oldest orchestras – mark Beethoven’s 250th anniversary by performing the Fifth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto, with soloist Rudolf Buchbinder.

Baltic Sea Philharmonic
© Peter Adamik | Müpa, Budapest

The Baltic Sea Philharmonic is much younger. Founded in 2008 by musicians from countries surrounding the Baltic, this exciting orchestra is conducted by Kristjan Järvi. In Budapest, they pair Grieg with Stravinsky. Hungarian pianist József Balog plays Grieg’s evergreen Piano Concerto while Järvi conducts the 1945 suite from The Firebird.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will be a more familiar name to many readers. Founded by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1946, the orchestra has a long history. Vasily Petrenko, who takes over as the RPO’s Music Director from 2021, has a special affinity with Russian music, so Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony should be the highlight of a programme which also sees Alice Sara Ott tackle Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto.

Opera and oratorio always play a part in Müpa’s season. Every summer sees a return of Ádám Fischer’s Wagner Days festival, which features staged concert performances of The Ring plus, next season, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Swedish dramatic soprano Iréne Theorin is scheduled to sing Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – no mean feat over three consecutive evenings. Far, far away from the Bayreuth master’s tetralogy and into the gilt-layered world of late 18th-century French opera comes a concert performance of Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne’s Phèdre. In the style of Gluck, Phèdre is an intense work, here given its first complete performance since Lemoyne’s time. Dutch soprano Judith van Wanroij had a great success in the title role in Paris two years ago and assumes it once more in Budapest. In bel canto land, Bellini’s La sonnambula – an unlikely tale of a sleepwalking maiden who ends up in Count Rodolfo’s bedroom – is staged by Csaba Káel and stars Czech coloratura soprano Zuzana Marková. Riccardo Frizza, an expert in this repertoire, conducts.

Waltraud Meier
© Nomi Baumgarti | Müpa, Budapest

Just as every season brings its Wagner Days festival, so every new year at Müpa is marked by Ádám Fischer conducting Haydn’s joyous oratorio, The Creation, this time with the forces of Concentus Musicus Wien and the Purcell Choir. Another oratorio, Handel’s Alexander Balus, receives its Hungarian premiere in March, under conductor Pál Németh. Standout vocal recitals for the season include Rolando Villazón singing music by Spanish, Mexican and Argentinian composers, Bryn Terfel singing operatic arias, and Waltraud Meier giving an intimate Liederabend of Mahler, Wolf and Wagner.

Zoltán Kocsis was a legendary Hungarian performer. Pianist, conductor and composer, Kocsis died on 6th November 2016. Once again, Müpa marks the anniversary of his death with a special memorial concert, which this year features his arrangement of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin along with a concerto with which he was strongly associated – Chopin’s First – and the world premiere of his Stabat mater. A great musician honoured by a great hall.

This preview was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary