There seem no better odds for curating an engaging concert than those offered by forming varied chamber groups from a visiting orchestra and playing works by contrasting composers at interesting points in their respective timelines.

Dénes Várjon © Balazs Borocz
Dénes Várjon
© Balazs Borocz

Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes dates form his time in New York, having fled the unrest of the Russian Revolution. Initially disinclined to compose around pre-existing themes, he later warmed to the idea and set to work on a score for string quartet, clarinet and piano. The opening theme, certainly as played here by the Budapest Festival Orchestra Soloists, seems the acme of Klezmer music: the melody's bitter-sweet nature, ensured by minor thirds but also raised fourths, was carried by Ákos Ács' stylish clarinet, accompanied by partly pizzicato quartet. The passage was soon offset by one of lush counterpoint, underpinned by Dénes Várjon's rippling piano arpeggios. Both themes enjoyed a reprise, the clarinet allowed more adventurous wandering in the return of the opening. The final appearance of this bittersweet clarinet theme foreshadowed minimalist techniques: first three notes, then four before opening out into a full statement and a witty accelerando ending, played with great flair. Two things seemed clear in this nine-minute opener: the chamber music skills were of the highest level; and the musicians seemed very much to be enjoying the music and each other's playing.

Small details of performance practicality often catch the reviewer's eye. The only wind player in the opening item, Ács was, like his male colleagues, sporting a bow tie. Appearing next in wind sextet format, where free neck movement is to be prized, he joined them in tieless repose for Poulenc's Sextet.

The work is scored for flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn and piano – and what a piano part it is! It really drives much of the work. The speedy wind counterpoint of the opening Allegro vivace was very impressive and there were striking moments of individual contribution such as Dániel Tallián's expressive bassoon solo and Zoltán Szőke's angular horn lines. The chamber skill of the group really struck me in a moment of near-telepathic rallentando between Victor Aviat's oboe and the piano – without so much as a glance exchanged.

The central Divertissment saw Aviat in a nod to one of Poulenc's heroes, Mozart – the opening theme of his Piano Sonata in C major K545, but not a direct quote from stylish and witty Poulenc – that would be gauche. This albeit tangentially reverent moment, gives way to more mischievous writing ushered in here by Szőke's lively horn work. Once again, extremely dynamic piano fuelled the Finale. This was offset by a later romantic theme, delivered here with great tenderness. Then, following some impressively wide-ranging horn playing and finely balanced counterpoint the music came to a sudden standstill, the cue for more lovely solo fragments across the wind players. The movement ended as described in Roger Nichols' fine programme note as a journey "from jazzy syncopation to solemn apotheosis". There was a great deal to enjoy here and I feel sure that I'll revisit this work very soon.

Malcolm Gillies' programme note on Bartók's Piano Quintet suggested that one might struggle to guess the composer. Due to what literary critic Harold Bloom describes as "the anxiety of influence", Bartók chose to consider this a pre-opus number apprentice work. And, sure enough, one can hear Brahms, Liszt and Strauss. Scored for string quartet and piano, the work has a very late-Romantic feel, although tinges of dissonance and Hungarianism-to-come peep through the robust Austro-Germanic veneer. I felt this to be the case most in the Adagio, the third of four movements which, having opened with unison strings soon begins to foreshadow the mood of Bartók's piano concerto slow movements. This movement segues into the joyous, closing Poco a poco più vivace, which had very much the spirit of Brahms' Hungarian Dances. The playing here was excellent, especially Várjon's piano. The work's mercurial changes saw him move from almost jazzy legato to punchy counterpoint in a very short time. Vulgar as sporting analogies are, he really struck me as “Man of the Match”; the only one to have appeared in – and really central to – the morning's three works. However, the sum is always greater than the parts in any heart-warming concert and, in addition to all the individual moments, what will remain with me is the memory of such fine chamber music playing.