On the same day the musical press had announced a lucky Hungarian as the recipient of the famous Stradivarius cello played by Jacqueline duPré, my ticket to a concert in Budapest that night coincidentally bore his name: István Várdai, the cellist who was to play Camille Saint-SaënsConcerto no. 1 on that very instrument. His performance was a knockout punch for a hometown hero as much as for the unveiling of a precious instrument with an illustrious provenance.

István Várdai © Felbontású Nagy
István Várdai
© Felbontású Nagy

The programme at the elegant Franz Liszt Academy was actually a double showcase for harpist Andrea Vigh and Várdai in well-known and lesser-known works by Saint-Saëns, partially accompanied by the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra led by Gergely Vajda. For the compositions’ lesser-known category, it amounted to a reverent dusting off of a few pieces that, upon hearing, one can understand why they have been excluded from the general concert programming.

Vigh, a professional harpist who is also the Rector of the Academy, has done due diligence to resurrect the composer’s Fantasy for Harp, Op.95; Fantasy for Violin and Harp, Op.124 (partnered here with her top-notch colleague Szabadi Vilmós); and the Morceau de concert for Harp and Orchestra, Op.154. While these three were interesting for their archival appeal, they show very little of the composer’s genius for beguiling melody and harmonic invention that pulled him out of the shop-worn classical mould and into the freer romantic experimentation that marks his most famous works. In a few instances, the (perhaps too-large) orchestra overpowered the soloist, obscuring much of the filigreed detail; but we nevertheless got a sense of Saint-Saëns’ love for the harp and his hommage for its position in French instrumental repertoire.

Vigh’s spotlight also included another instrumental coup of importance: the harp she played was crafted by the Swiss firm Gerard & Anne-Marie David, both of whom were in attendance. This harp is a stunning visual work of art in addition be being a instrument with great subtlety, silvery tone, and able to inflect the soft nuance so suitable for French repertoire. Its oversized Egyptian-style serpent head atop the black and gold frame was delightfully attuned to the over-the-top Seccessionist decor of the Academy’s interior.

Várdai, as tall as a basketball player, burst onto the stage lifting the Strad for all to see — its dark wood perfection glowing, as did its unique timbre enchant throughout the second half of the program. He carefully modulated its tonal aspects from sweetly spun sugar to lucious chocolate bass tones with deft expertise in the Allegro appassionato for Cello and Orchestra, Op.43 (a five-minute bon-bon of lesser light than what followed) and the Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor, a seasoned work which, finally, in a vehicle with deeply-layered musical integrity and innovation, allowed the cello’s capacity to shine and for Várdai to flex his considerable musical muscle with great dynamism.

The audience wasn’t going to be cheated of their just desserts: Várdai bestowed three encores which further allowed this instrument to fill the hall with its unaccompanied sound, including a blissful rendition of Saint-Saëns' The Swan with Ms Vigh on the harp. Here we could really focus on this cello’s magic: incredible evenness of tone throughout and an unusual ruby-colored timbre. In the hands of the gifted Várdai, this Strad will add onsiderable prestige to its history.