Third up on the second day of a rich seam of events celebrating the tenth anniversary of Müpa’s organ installation, concert-goers who had attended the equivalent of a musical mini-marathon throughout the weekend were treated a celebration of home-grown fare. Music by Hungarian composers was on the programme, mostly transcriptions of orchestral works made by the two organists on the roster.

Balázs Szabó and Zsigmond Szathmáry © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Balázs Szabó and Zsigmond Szathmáry
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Far from letting us flag at pre-finale stage, the festival’s impeccable planning meant that we were all re-animated by this event. Veteran composer-organist Zsigmond Szathmary is something of a legend amongst organists in Hungary and further afield. His own loyal following was well-represented in the hall. He was joined by his protégé, Balȧks Szabo, who began the recital. In a thirty minute barn-storming performance, his transcription of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite beggared belief in terms of virtuosity, musical understanding and orchestral colour, a demonstration of astonishing organ playing viewed to even greater effect via Müpa’s big screens, hanging either side of the stage. The final death chords of the music produced gasps of amazement from a transfixed audience.

Szathmary’s transcription of Kodaly’s Dances of Marosszek by contrast seemed a little wayward, not helped by mismanagement of registration by his assistant. His own composition, Mors et vita, fared better, and was convincing, even if offering more than a nod in harmonic language to Messiaen. The programme ended in a blaze of glory with the four hands of both organists and the two feet of Szabo delivering an arrangement by Szathmary of Liszt’s Les Préludes. Szathmary recreated the atmosphere of this piece by use of sensitive texture, colour and scoring, in a wholly convincing reworking. Both players brought to the music an intensity and dramatic overview which was worthy of the great composer-performer himself. In particular, Szabo’s unerring sense of harmonic bass, with no pedal note out of place, revealed an intellectual as well as technical mastery of the music. Here is a talent to watch.

Müpa's organ at the centre of the weekend’s festival has many qualities which make it ideal for orchestral transcriptions. There’s a wide dynamic range, from the pianissimo shimmer of strings to the fortissimo punch of full organ with Chamade reeds (those are the pipes sticking out horizontally from the façade). Crucially, all shades of colour in between can be reached instantly by the touch of a piston, or by a crescendo pedal, with a myriad of digital playing aids at the stage console. It’s the art of the player to make gradations imperceptibly, as well as to imitate as closely as possible the orchestral sounds in the original score, or to re-interpret them sensitively via organ sonorities. Part of the appeal of this concert was that we could see all those skills put into practice on stage and in close-up on the screen, rather than hidden away in a distant organ loft, whither organists so often are banished.

It is no coincidence that orchestral arrangements should be given such profile in the festival, now at a time when they are once again becoming a staple part of the organist’s standard repertoire. Though out of fashion during the years of the rebirth of the classical organ, transcriptions are now once more on the agenda of organ conservatoires wherever fine organ-playing is taught. By today’s exposition, let them all come here and learn how it’s done. It was superb.