Playing repeatedly in my mind as I walked home on 24 July was the spine-chilling orchestral performance of the "Dance of the Knights" from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in the Franz Liszt Academy’s superb Solti Hall. I judged my ‘Ohrwurm’ to be, rather than the usual annoying pest of lesser drivel, a glorious reminder of the excitement of what I had just witnessed on the weekend of 22 July in Budapest.

Members of the Festival Academy Budapest © János Posztós
Members of the Festival Academy Budapest
© János Posztós

That particular score, played by an ad hoc orchestra composed of the superb musicians who took part in this inaugural edition of the Festival Academy Budapest, was one of the many highlights of the festival’s final concert. The evening was entitled “Shakespeare 400 − Kurtag 90”, and offered works by Bach, Franck, Saint-Saëns, Brahms, and Kurtág, in addition to excerpts of Prokofiev’s score for the ballet woven into a hugely condensed and semi-staged version of the Shakespeare play adapted by Judit Galgóczy and translated by Dezső Mészöly.

That evening’s concert was a cavalcade of styles, artists, and genres. The pre-printed program bore no relation to what we witnessed, as enormous changes happened at the last minute − the overall result being a kaleidoscope of almost too much of a good thing. With a play as the grand finale after a long sequence of chamber music, it was both a marathon and a cabinet of curiosities.

The program began with an unusual duo from Warsaw, Iwo Jedynecki (accordion) and Aleksander Kryzanowski (piano), who performed an exquisitely artistic rendition of Franck’s Prelude, Fugue and Variation, a work which is primarily known as an organ solo. The duo informed me that Franck had originally written it for piano and harmonium, the latter being a popular instrument in his time. Later, the two played with considerable bravura “Fantasy And Fugue”, the first piece of a six-part suite for the same instruments by Saint-Saëns. The duo has unearthed more original scores for piano and harmonium and looks forward to being the first musicians to record them. Based on their captivating performance here, I would say it’s a recording worth waiting for.

The 90-year old composer György Kurtág, one of the titular titans of the evening, was represented with performances of three of his short chamber works. His Scenes from a Novel, Op.19, for singer, viola, dulcimer and double bass was expertly rendered, and with appropriate amounts of Kurtág’s trademark wit and style. His The Little Predicament for piccolo, trombone and guitar was another witty escapade played with tongue-in-cheek élan. And the Hommage á Robert Schumann for clarinet, viola and piano, plunged into the subterranean of the soul with gloomy textures slightly reminiscent of ambient dark jazz, perhaps recalling to mind Schumann’s struggle with sanity.

The Kelemen Quartet are the gravitational center of the festival − its two string players (Barnabas Kelemen and Katalin Kokas) are the festival’s founders and artistic directors – and it mixed and matched with other string players throughout. They added violist James Boyd, cellist Ditta Rohmann, and violinist Alina Pogostkina to create ensembles perched in two different balconies to play excerpts from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Cellist Boris Andrianov performed an intensely intimate version of Saint-Saëns’ The Swan with pianist Balog.

To perform Brahms’ String Quintet no. 2, Op.111, József Lendvay joined Kokas, and Rysanov joined the quartet’s regular violist Homoki and regular cellist László Fenyö for an especially vibrant rendition that brought out the extravagant romanticism of the composer’s last years.

As to the treatment of Romeo and Juliet, I’ll say it’s a commendable venture to attempt to add another multi-layered performing discipline to the already bustling stage business. But because the play was so drastically whittled down to fit − including slicing off the famous ending, it did Shakespeare a disservice. Prokofiev, though, triumphed, via the extraordinary one-time-only orchestra and Rysanov’s thrillingly daredevil tempos.

For the three-day festival, Keleman and Kokas offered a spectacular roster of hand-picked musicians and concerts with repertoire from Dowland to Kurtág, but with special attention to Hungarian composers. The six concerts were each dedicated to legendary Hungarian musician-educators, and lectures focused on works by Bartók, Kurtág, and Kodaly, in addition to Shostakovich, Britten, and Paganini.

Keleman and Kokas, both professors of violin and viola at the Liszt Academy, call the building, which is also their alma mater, “a shrine to music.” Their festival concept is to offer private lessons, masterclasses, pre-concert talks, and two concerts per day so that the “shrine” becomes a beehive of musical activity from morning ‘til night.

Because of the strong roster of artists and the sophisticated programming, the sold-out performances were a hot ticket in Budapest on this weekend.