To create an impact at the very beginning of a piece of music, there's nothing quite like a big, bold statement of the theme. In the case of Hungarian composer Gyula Fekete's The Dream of the Red Chamber, the big statement at the beginning turns out to be the first of many throughout the work: here is a new composition that is unashamedly melodic, going for the large dramatic sweep at every possible occasion.

© David Karlin
© David Karlin

The Dream of the Red Chamber is a piano concerto based on themes by Wang Liping from a Chinese TV show, commissioned by pianist Claudia Yang, who was the soloist last night in one of the closing concerts of this year's Budapest Spring Festival. It's the first time the work has been performed outside China. A fair summary of the work might be "Rachmaninov goes from Hollywood to China": the music is extremely filmic, it's filled to the brim with Chinese scales and sounds, and the piano part is full of power chords and rippling scales that use the full length of the keyboard.

The Győr Philharmonic and Janos Kovács gave a spirited performance whose results were very easy on the ear; I was very much beguiled by the torrent of melody. The most impressive aspect was Fekete's cleverness in creating orchestral textures which mimic the sound of traditional Chinese instruments. But I found the whole work to be less of a concerto than a film score with a prominent piano part: I didn't really feel a sense of progression or structure through the work and while Yang's playing was more than adequate, there wasn't really the dialogue between distinct piano and orchestral voices that I would hope for in a true concerto.

The rest of the programme was a mixed affair. Smetana's overture from The Bartered Bride provided a curtain-raiser that was less than a complete success: rather than the joyous launching pad that the piece should be, it came across as somewhat subdued. On the other hand, it did demonstrate that the Bálna Event Space's acoustics are surprisingly good. The Bálna (the name means "whale") is a converted set of warehouses topped by a curved steel and glass roof, and the Event Space is a plain floor at the top of the building directly under the roof. It's a country mile from a purpose-designed concert hall, but it sounded warm and clean.

© David Karlin
© David Karlin
The second half started with Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, K297b, the solo group being a quartet of wind players: oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. It's a delightful piece that's full of good humour and provides a real showpiece for the wind players, each of whom gets a series of dizzying semiquaver runs, often interweaved with each other. The Györ Philharmonic played with a clean sound with very little vibrato. Things were a little ragged at first, but they settled in and a lot of big smiles around the orchestra made it clear that this is a piece they really enjoy playing. The double bass section was especially notable, adding some real zest to their restatements of the theme. The soloists were all well up to the extreme virtuosity required, although they weren't always as prominent above the orchestral background as I might have wished for.

The concert ended with a known crowd-pleaser in the shape of a mixture of the two suites from Bizet's L'Arlésienne. It's another piece where the melodies are bold, the Spanish-pastiche dance rhythms equally so, and compositional tricks like fugue and counterpoint are also on display. The closing farandole, with its barrage of glissandi as the two main themes are overlaid on each other, was more or less guaranteed to send us off with a smile into the mild evening air of a Budapest springtime.

***11