Concerto Budapest is one of the oldest orchestras in Hungary, established in 1907. After several changes, it obtained its current name and appointed its Artistic Director and Chief Conductor, András Keller, in the first decade of our century. The orchestra’s substantial Beethoven Festival, planned for the last days of November, had to be reorganised due to Covid restrictions. It thus became a one-day event with three concerts: a chamber music recital in the morning, an orchestral concert in the afternoon, followed by three different versions (string quartet, piano four-hand and string orchestra) of the Große Fuge, Op.133 in the evening.

András Keller and Dénes Várjon
© Concerto Budapest

The concerts were streamed from the Grand Hall of the historical Liszt Academy. Their concept and programming was created by the indefatigable Keller, himself a highly experienced chamber musician. He had a busy day, as he took on playing violin or conducting in eight of the ten Beethoven compositions.

The morning concert presented a gargantuan programme of about 160 minutes of music, without an interval – a concert length not at all unheard of in Beethoven’s own lifetime, but it felt exhausting here. The streamed concert without an audience is a product of our Covid-infested life. It is not a playlist that one can pause or switch off at any time. Instead, it offers an adapted version of the concert experience, rather than a new format, and therefore, it should be respectful of the typical attention span of both its audience and performers.  

The first item was the Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, “Kreutzer”, performed by András Keller and Dénes Várjon, a solid performance of a masterwork that one never gets tired of hearing. It took a while to get used to the very closely positioned microphones, which amplified the sound of the piano pedals moving or Keller’s frequent and energetic pounding of the beat with his feet on the floor – probably less audible in a real performance with audience. The violinist seldom let his guard down enough to play Beethoven’s often extreme dynamic changes. This became particularly noticeable in his muscular interpretation of the middle movement, where Beethoven, in extraordinary fashion, avoided writing fortes altogether; there are plenty of crescendi and sforzati but, according to his instructions, the loud, forte volume should never be reached. There were tender and delicate moments though, for example in the piano introduction of the last, major key variation of the same movement.

In the “Ghost” Piano Trio, Op.70 no.1, Keller was joined by János Balázs (piano) and Miklós Perényi (cello), but was a disappointing example of the sum being less than its parts. These artists are undisputed giants of their instruments, with a phenomenal collective musical worth. Why then the numerous ensemble problems, starting right from the first note of the work? Why did the two string players not agree on the presence or absence and intensity of their vibrato in their solemn unison passage in the second movement’s theme? To be sure, there were some inspired, lovely moments, when their instinctive musicality gloriously took over; however, on their proven musical heights, more precise artistic collaboration would be expected.

The Hungarian Quartet
© Judit Marjai

Things improved dramatically in the rest of the concert, beginning with an emotion-filled presentation of the Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major, Op.69 by Perényi and Várjon. Arguably, these musicians have played together and known each other’s musical characteristics for many years. This matters, of course, but far less than their genuine dedication to the work, the never-ceasing attention to details and each other and their palpable enjoyment of the music that they played.

To finish on a high note, as it were, the Hungarian Quartet, led by Keller, gave a momentous performance of the String Quartet no. 15 in A minor, Op.132. A focused and unified sound between the musicians (András Keller violin, János Pilz violin, Gábor Homoki viola, László Fenyő cello) led to an equally focused and unified performance, worthy of the greatness of the original Hungarian Quartet, one of the best quartets of all times, established in 1935. (Should their name perhaps be respected as a unique ensemble and not taken over?)

Despite some minor issues, such as occasional ensemble problems or the heartbreaking Heiliger Dankgesang movement’s instruction of sotto voce not followed fully, this performance showed Keller and his colleagues at their artistic peak with their cohesive partnership and masterful interpretation of the score.

All performers were presented with a bouquet of flowers as they took their bows in an eerily silent, empty hall.

This performance was reviewed from the Concerto Budapest video livestream