The Ferenc Liszt Chamber Orchestra is a small core band of string players, formed in 1963 by former students of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, which has built an international reputation of excellence and has performed worldwide. True to their roots, the players are actively engaged in a schools programme in Hungary introducing children to the world of classical music, also working closely with the Academy. This early Sunday evening all-Mozart concert at the lovely Müpa Concert Hall in Budapest was a showcase for two 21-year old pianists, already seasoned performers and competition winners, to play a piano concerto apiece alongside one of Hungary’s top ensembles to a packed house.

Krisztián Kocsis
© Luca Kende

The orchestra, led by violinist Péter Tfirst, opened with Mozart’s Divertimento in F major K138, and I was immediately struck by their rich mellow string tone, light and airy in the Allegro with bold statements and delicate responses, detail in the faster passages thrillingly clear. A charming and warm Andante was followed by an exciting sparkling bright Presto, full of gritty attack, the players clearly enjoying the rubato each time the main dancing theme returned. The work is more usually performed by a quartet, but here the fuller sound of chamber orchestra produced an exciting range of colours in a delightful performance.

The strings were augmented by brass, woodwind and timpani players for the two piano concertos, the first, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 13 in C major K415, related to the later Jupiter Symphony, first performed in Vienna in the presence of the Emperor when Mozart was barely older than the young soloist Krisztián Kocsis. It is a nervous wait for a young soloist as the quiet theme takes time to build to a robust tutti, but I enjoyed Kocsis’ light touch in the opening Allegro, making the music flow from his fingertips. The orchestra gave a sensitive accompaniment, never overwhelming Kocsis in the quieter moments, allowing him space to make the piece his own. Tender in the Andante, he sparkled in the final movement as it journeyed from a dreamy start to a stately then lively dance, Kocsis’ tremendous runs adding considerable brio.

The better known Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor K466, first performed by Mozart exactly 233 years ago, had Ádám Balogh taking over the Müpa Steinway. A restless opening theme in the orchestra built to a forte full of accents underlined by the hard-stick timpani and coloured by sprightly woodwind. Balogh’s graceful playing was intriguing to watch, completely at one with the music, leaning into the phrases, his hands coming off notes always lifted high. There was assertive communication between soloist and orchestra throughout with the young Balogh confidently leading the experienced players, his boldness adding a certain frisson to the performance.

As he developed the initial theme, I was struck by his maturity of phrasing and technical ability with bright runs and solid chord work, making the piano sing, almost slipping unnoticed into the cadenza with gentle rippling, building to a lively finish. The central Romance was a lovely soft simple tune which developed stormily, Balogh’s hands crossing repeatedly in agitation before calm returned. The final Rondo was a fiery, lively dance, notes brightly rippling from the keyboard, and a new theme introduced by the woodwind was developed by Balogh before soloist and orchestra jubilantly rounded off the work to tumultuous applause.

Balogh gave a short encore of his arrangement of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, a tune sung by Hungarian children on 5th December, the eve of St Nicholas. Finally, in a touching moment of musical camaraderie, both pianists returned to the platform giving a rousing performance of the final Allegro giusto from Debussy’s Petite Suite, an instant winner for the sell-out crowd.

I was immensely impressed with Müpa's clear focussed acoustic and the wonderful sense of space in the auditorium enhanced by György Jovánovics’ colourful reliefs. Outside the hall, the public areas are inspiring, and its site right on the Danube, partnering the National Theatre impressive. Lit up at night, it is a spectacular addition to Budapest’s cityscape.