The Budapest Spring Festival began its 36th season with an opening night surprise: violinist-violist Julian Rachlin stepped in on short notice for the ailing Kim Kashkashian to perform Béla Bartók’s Viola Concerto with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, under the baton of David Robertson. It was a win-win for the Festival and for Bartók, in part because the composer’s only solo viola piece – and what a virtuosos gem it is – received an extraordinary performance.

The programme also offered Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 and John Adams’ Harmonielehre. Including the Bartók, these three pieces would probably have constituted adventurous fare for listeners almost anywhere in the world, but for Hungarians, it’s completely normal. For the past three three decades, conductor Iván Fischer (co-founder and artistic director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra) has educated audiences with a purposely mixed palette of musical offerings.

Rachlin’s interpretation of the concerto was as sensitive and artistic as gutsy and intense, as he dug into the instrument’s velvety depths and sang like a ruby-throated violin in the stratosphere. His instrument has a slightly muted and sweet tone, which qualitatively contrasts to larger violas who have more power but less tonal allure, especially in the high range. This worked well for Rachlin throughout, because Bartók’s compass in this score not only exploits every possible note on the instrument, but frequently calls for shimmeringly ethereal high tones, not normally the viola’s bailiwick.

We witnessed most of those lovely high notes in the second movement, an intensely bittersweet section that could perhaps have foreshadowed Bartók’s feelings about his impending demise. He had only completed sketches, not a full score, by the beginning of September 1945, just three weeks before his death from leukemia. (The score was subsequently fleshed out by Tibor Serly and premiered in 1949.) Bartók followed the advice of violist William Primrose who told him not to feel any limitations about the instrument. The result was a jewel of a concerto, albeit highly technically challenging. 

In the hands of Rachlin, however, it was an uber-romantic experience. He navigated the hybrid milieu of gnarly chromatic scalar passages and fervent melodic lyricism with artful shaping, mining the many moments of stillness among the orchestral cataclysms with tenderness. The third movement’s obvious references to Hungarian folk dances provided a bit of ear-candy within Bartók’s typically angular, spiky, style. This concerto deserves much more time in the symphonic spotlight, especially the way Rachlin plays it.

Adams’ three-movement Harmonielehre (Study of harmony), named after the various tomes on music theory by Schoenberg, Schenker, and Riemann, may apply that theme only opaquely, because it’s one of Adams’ early and notable introductions to his compositional personality. Here, he employs extended sections of minimalism that remind us clearly of Philip Glass and Steve Reich alongside his more original forays into insightful construction with striking orchestrational acumen.

The kaleidoscope he constructs is cleverly timed sonic architecture: he knows exactly how much the human brain can absorb before it needs a change. His tools are magnificent depth of sound, just enough repetition, shifting the musical geology via layers of sustained wind chords, and primally pulsating rhythmic underpinnings. His appealing combination of accessibility and mysteriousness hook the ear consistently. Even if the three movements didn’t have oddball titles requiring some rather esoteric knowledge (I. First Movement, II. The Anfortas Wound, III. Meister Eckhardt and Quackie) – or any titles at all – it wouldn’t matter a bit. The piece’s compelling soundscape is enough in itself.

The quintessential Hungarian potboiler, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2, under Robertson’s control, steered clear of cliché as he accentuated the nature of its quirky and improvisational rhythmic life: sudden volume changes and extremes of rubato, all of which was accomplished with tight, crisp baton technique. Careening toward the finale, Robertson carefully calibrated the locomotion necessary for a rousing end, which resonated thrillingly in the enviable acoustics of Müpa.