Hungarian Folklore in Grand Style

As part of the Wiener Festwochen, the Konzerthaus this year organized the 33rd Internationales Musikfest; a huge music festival of over 50 concerts from May 5 to Jun. 19. International artists appear for recitals and renowned international orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra tour Austria at that time for that occasion.

A more colorful and singular concert took place in the Grosser Saal at the end of May: the concert performances of Zoltan Kodály’s Háry János, a Hungarian musical fairy tale written in the early 20th century. For opera lovers, May 28 proved a day of tough decisions, as the Vienna State Opera premiered Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

For those who went to see Háry János, the draw was at least in part the rich Hungarian folk music elements with violin and cymbals used by Koldáy, from the dance suite of this folk opera that is a standard of the orchestral repertoire. But hearing the whole Singspiel was a rare treat

An entire Hungarian cast, the Hungarian Radio Orchestra and Choir led formidably by native Hungarian conductor Adam Fischer gave a both moving and highly entertaining performance. For the Viennese, the spoken text was translated into German and read by Austrian actors Ulrike Beimpold and Florentin Groll, who adapted to the different character by changing hats and vocal quality, the passion in the performance creating a full scene in the imagination.

We are led to a rural pub in Hungary listening to Háry János’s adventurous life, sung by Baritone Béla Perencz, and his engagement to archduchess Marie Louise in Vienna and his defeat of Napoleon. In the end, he returns home to lead a simple life with his beloved Örze, interpreted by Mezzo Soprano Judit Németh, and we return to the rural pub for yet another glass of Hungarian wine.

The undisputed crowning of the Musikfest was the final orchestral concert, given by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under its Musical Director Fabio Luisi on Jun. 18 and 19. Only one item was programmed, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 also nicknamed the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. The first performance of this extraordinary work in Munich 1910, conducted by the composer – calling for a large orchestra, two mixed choruses, a children’s chorus and eight soloists, – had more than 1,000 performers on stage.

Even with this considerably smaller group, the sound volume was still enormous and one felt that even the Grosser Saal of the Konzerthaus was too small for the 90-minute work. Part I uses the setting of a medieval Latin Pentecost hymn, a praise to god, the creator with the power of all of those on stage.  The bursts of joy are sometimes interrupted by sections of chamber music quality, and particularly the interplay between the orchestra and the soloists offered a variety of musical colors, more thoughtful than joyous.

The substantial second part uses Goethe’s final scene of Faust II. Here, Mahler is at his most operatic, creating mysterious scenery in the wood with sparking instrumental colors, and a chant-like whispering chorus.  The orchestra surpassed even its reputation and transformed the concert stage with the audience witnessing the events.

The work builds up to the final ‘Chorus Mysticus’, similarly to the resurrection chorus in Mahler’s Second Symphony. However, here the heavenly scene was musically too heavy and the conductor is not able to sustain the powerful built-up. The choruses, performed by the Wiener Singakademie and the Slovakian Philharmonic Chorus, while beautiful were not inspired by the mysticism needed to make the performance spark.

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