The Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, one of ten professional orchestral ensembles in Budapest, offered a colorful program at Müpa that mixed up the regional flavours of Romanian, Hungarian and Czech folkloric orchestral styles with selections that used, more or less, the theme-and-variations template. Composer-conductor Gregory Vajda led the ensemble in works by Enescu, Dvořák and a world première of his own Clarinet Symphony.

Gregory Vajda © Bela Szaloky
Gregory Vajda
© Bela Szaloky

Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 in A major began the programme, supplying listeners with plenty of gypsy fervour, starting with the jaunty viola solo near the top of the piece. While entertaining, this rhapsody is an odd composition: the patchwork quilt of thematic material is largely held together by loose seams of chromatic movement that bear little compositional charm and seem more like an over-used device. But Enescu’s orchestration here is bright and joyful, packing a significant punch in the sensitive acoustics of the state-of-the-art Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, one of three performing spaces inside this 11-year old edifice.

For the Hungarian component, Vajda’s Clarinet Symphony for two clarinets (performed by Gábor Varga and János Szepesi) and orchestra was less folk-flavored and more focused on a fascinating orchestrational features that, in many cases, overshadowed the soloists’ content. It was structured in seven short movements that employed the “variations” idea via a suite that harkened back to the Baroque model. Vajda’s language was a unique modern tongue, not triadic or modal, but definitely his own, and characterised by skillful use of winds and percussion to cook up little sonic worlds that burbled and bubbled like extraterrestrial bodies.

The movements were framed by a Praeludium and an extended Postludium that featured some of the best timpani writing I have heard. Three timpanists, trading overlapping phrases with each other like ping-pong players, spooled the rhythmic tattoos from one side of the stage to the other, rolling through thrilling waves of crescendos and diminuendos. This created a palpable tension that supported the extensive amount of crisp and concise wind writing above it, sometimes sectional and other times soloists from within the orchestra – together with the solo clarinettists, who each played two instruments.

The Praeludium had one aspect – brevity – that helped it succeed where others did not; this one section was a brilliantly defined study in condensing everything to the essentials, which were, essentially, all the materials he used to flesh out the other movements, but which tended to get bogged down with overstatements of the various themes and motifs, particularly in the segue continuum of the final three movements.

The Ballada (No. 2) was a slow dirge started by harp, drums and basses that continued underneath the higher instruments’ slides and effects. The Scherzo (No. 3) began with a spooky subterranean layer of winds that provided a cushion for the two clarinets’ ecstatic flurries of circular activity, and the Adagio’s (No. 4) sustained glacial tectonics, almost choral in texture, painted a dreamy reverie punctuated occasionally by a single harp note. While certainly not a traditional concerto for clarinets (as those instruments were used as part of the larger wind team as much as they were featured soloists), the piece’s overall effect was a scintillating, almost irradiated texture, especially when the entire percussion section was in full swing.

The program concluded with Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major, which, after hearing Vajda’s cosmic caper, made the Czech’s romantic noodlings, that roam unadventurously from G major to G minor, a comparatively vapid trajectory.

Müpa’s concert hall with Bártok’s name on it is a real treasure for Budapest’s busy concert life. The acoustics are bright and robust, able to define delicate sounds, and support a full blast of brass without distortion. The hall sports a large organ whose pipes and console are in full view of the audience. And having the Danube waterfront just outside the door was the perfect setting for this spirited Mitteleuropa program.

***11