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Hungarian Connections

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
11/02/2023 -  & November 3*, 4, 2023
Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 in C‑Sharp Minor, S.244 (arr. Jenő Lisztes)
Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances, BB 76
Győrgy Ligeti: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel)

Jenő Lisztes (Cimbalom), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki (Conductor)

S. Mälkki (© Jiyang Chen)

Franz Liszt? A smasher of pianos.

It’s impossible to imagine a more complete fusion with nature than that of the Gypsy.”

Implausible as it may sound, Pierre-Laurent Aimard was out‑Aimarded at this week’s New York Philharmonic concerts this week.

Yes, Mr. Airmard is one of the most attractive pianists in the world, and yes, his relationship with Győrgy Ligeti was as close as Joachim to BrahMs. Yet that meant little before the orchestra gathered on stage.

That was when an insignificant-looking man wandered on stage, sat down at a table, and started playing his instrument. Then, the world of ordinary music evaporated. Truth be told, Jenő Lisztes is the most famed performer on the Hungarian cimbalom. And second truth, with only two sticks, he gives the illusion of playing the most challenging Liszt piano work as if he had ten fingers–and more.

Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody has become famous for everybody from Bugs Bunny to Milton Berle. Yet this doesn’t detract from its intricate major-minor modulations, its great scale passages, its crazy tunes. Jenő Lisztes arranged it for an instrument which Liszt knew well, the cimbalom.

So astounding was the start that–like trying to decipher a magician’s trick–it took awhile to figure how he could play all those piano notes with a pair of sticks. The answer was twofold. While the instrument has a zither‑like twang, it echoes and resonates for several seconds after being struck. At the same time, this resonance can be totally controlled by Mr. Lisztes, so a single note can be either held for a second or two or more. Or go onto the next one.

Combine this with the cimbalom’s two‑fingered whizzing action. Action so assured that a Liszt chord for 8-10 fingers can sound chordal, since the notes go by so quickly, are held down for a beat, lifted up, and this chord illusion continues.

Thus an explanation. Yet it’s like the explanation given by a magician who manipulates his cards at quantum speed. For no mere explanation equals these seven minutes of action, accuracy, intonation and...well, totally original sounds of those over‑familiar notes.

Mr. Lisztes’ Liszt was the start of an all‑Magyar first half, conducted with precision and joy by Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, a well deserved favorite for audience and apparently orchestra. They were at their best for the following Bartók Romanian Dances. (Actually a misnomer since Hungary and Romania were the same country at that time.) Ms. Mälkki didn’t rush through them terpsichorean style. She took her time with each dance, allowing piccolo and violin solos to shine through. The were, in fact, ethnic pictures. A musicologist could differ Hungarian and Romanian scales, but this was hardly necessary.

And now to the centerpiece of the evening–and for Győrgy Ligeti’s 100th birth, a favorite in New York. Alan Gilbert had premiered his Grand Macabre last year, Taka Kigawa played the complete Etudes last month, and the Phil has scheduled more Ligeti concerts this year.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard was not only a friend, an interpreter and (hardly necessary) a promoter. Not necessary because Ligeti, in his thousand varied moods, was never confined by doctrine or applause or rules. (Though he wasn’t a monk. When Stanley Kubrick used part of his Atmosphères in 2001, without credit or payment, he was successfully sued.)

P. L. Aimard/J. Lisztes (© A. Savin, WikiCommons/Anita Veres)

Mr. Aimard and the Piano Concerto are intertwined. He plays it often, has recorded it thrice, and makes it is own.

One problem here. A fatal problem. The Steinway Piano has only 88 keys! Ligeti dashed from top to bottom. And if he had been able, he would have ascended to where only a dog could hear it. Or down to the chthonic depths.

As for the dynamics, Ligeti probably wished he could have increased the frequent rotating ffff and pppp with a few more ff’s and pp’s.

Never mind. Mr. Aimard took hold of this staggeringly demanding piano part–much of it like the Etudes. Jazzy and spiky at times. And while hardly Hungarian, the slow movement, even with ocarina and Swanee whistle, could have been a Bartók “Night Music.”

The last movements for the New York Phil could have been aleatory or Ives. Pierre‑Laurent Aimard held it together with the most commanding understanding of both digits and mind. For the gorgeous final Presto luminoso, Aimard was as quick as he was luminous.

The second half went north and west from Hungary to Russia and France for the oh so familiar Pictures at an Exhibition. Frequently played for sheer grandeur (and trumpeter Chris Martin signaled that stentorian feeling), Ms. Mälkki gave us the pictures. Was “The Old Castle” snail‑slow? We had time to explore the rafters and the cobweb. Were “Rich Jew and Poor Jew” viciously sarcastic? Well, Russian antisemitism was hardly rare.

Still, without an orchestra responding to Ms. Mälkki sensitive conducting, we would have had an over‑familiar piece. Instead we walked through the galleries, marveled at the images, and gave ourselves a triumphant final congratulations for our peripatetic voyage.

Harry Rolnick



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