Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Less is more, slower is faster and other paradoxes from the world of sound

Back in 1977, I heard the Philharmonia Hungarica perform at Orchestra Hall (Chicago). I can picture it as if it were yesterday, because one image stands out in my mind. It was the first and only time I ever saw Chef Louis Szathmary wear a tie.

It was that big a deal, at least for the Hungarian intelligentsia in Chicago, of whom Chef Lajos was captain.

I don’t remember the program, but I remember the encore: the Rakoczy March, the unofficial national anthem of Hungarians everywhere. This piece is normally played faster, faster, and then faster still to make its point.

But the P.H. had another idea: they played it plenty fast alright, but at the point of restating the final refrain, they cut the tempo in half, and played with a resolute, martial, relentless inevitability. For those of us sitting in the first balcony, the effect was like speeding along in a top-down sports car, and with no warning, having the brakes slammed on, and being catapulted into space.

I never heard the piece performed that way before – or since. In just one short encore was contained an entire graduate degree’s worth of instruction in style and interpretation.

In later years, the orchestra made their mark by recording all 104 Haydn symphonies, and to great critical acclaim. I purchased a number of them. You can hear some on youtube. Only one ensemble has equaled the feat, the Austro-Hungarian Hadyn Philharmonic, led by Adam Fischer.

I came across a CD by the P.H. recently, works of Kodaly. I went to the Internet to find out where they might be traveling and performing.

Much to my chagrin, the group disbanded.

Here’s what I found in Wikipedia:

The Philharmonia Hungarica was … first established in Baden bei Wien near Vienna by Hungarian musicians who had fled their homeland after it was invaded by Soviet troops. This refugee ensemble gathered together some of Hungary's finest musical talent and was directed by none other than Zoltán Rozsnyai, former conductor of the Hungarian National Philharmonic. Through the ardent efforts of Rozsnyai and honorary president Antal Doráti, the Philharmonia Hungarica quickly matured into one of Europe's most distinguished orchestras. During the 1970s, Dorati and the orchestra, under contract with Decca Records, made a canonical, world-first recording of the complete cycle of Joseph Haydn's symphonies; only one other ensemble, the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, conducted by Ádám Fischer, has since repeated this feat.

From the orchestra's inception, the West German government sought to harness its anti-Soviet propaganda potential. As a result, the government generously funded the orchestra throughout the Cold War and continued extending subsidies even after the Iron Curtain fell in 1990. The full withdrawal of state subsidies at the start of 2001, combined with the long-term decline in concert attendances, aggravated the financial problems that threatened the orchestra's survival. The beleaguered Philharmonia Hungarica finally disbanded after giving a farewell concert in Düsseldorf on 22 April 2001, featuring a performance of Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 conducted by Robert Bachmann. It was attended by an estimated audience of 150 in a concert hall meant to hold 2000.

To a hall 93% empty?


Our main topic of conversation here in this blog is the comeback, and the glory that attends.

But not every enterprise ends in glory. Some just end. And when only 150 are on hand to usher such a historic group into musical history, sometimes less is just, well, less.

POSTSCRIPT. Saturday, January 22, 2011. I recently located the Orchestra Hall program for this event that took place Monday, October 24, 1977:

Mozart, Symphony No. 40
Kodaly, Marroszek Dances
Chopin, PC No. 2 (Balint Vasonyi, soloist)
Tchaikovsky, Romeo et Juliette (two dances)
Liszt, Rakoczy March

The conductor: Zoltan Rosnay

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