Budapest, September 25, 2019; Müpa—For my ongoing survey of Budapest’s orchestral scene, I picked out an all-Bartók evening with the Hungarian National Philharmonic. The National Philharmonic came to (Western) fame under its longtime director János Ferencsik and again when it was led for two decades by Zoltán Kocsis until the latter’s death in 2016. The ambitious bill on this season-opening night included the Two Portraits Op. 5, the Third Piano Concerto, and Bluebeard’s Castle for the main course.

Under its new music director Zsolt Hamar, the concert started most auspiciously: The orchestra’s concertmaster Jenő Koppándi performed the exposed and moving violin solo with which the first of the Two Portraits opens, in supremely accurate fashion, with a welcome non-soloist, even humble air and with daring pianissimos. The string sections, one by one, accompanied him every bit as softly. Velvety woodwinds – hushed but tonal, not hissy – added hints of Korngold to the romantic first Portrait, which is Bartók’s re-working of the slow movement of his first violin concerto. After this “ideal” portrait, the second “grotesque” one is but a brief rhythmic afterthought, half Honegger’s Pacific 231, half Stravinsky-at-the-Circus, all condensed into less than three minutes. It’s a bit of a thankless task for the concertmaster, because having to sit back down with the rest of the group steals some of the applause-thunder that he would have well-deserved – and surely gotten – had the proceedings stopped right after the first movement.

The E major concerto got under way a little slower, with Dezső Ránki taking an unsentimental approach to this most lyrical of Bartók’s piano concertos. His hardened, chiseled tone and quick, spritely touch contrasted with the orchestra’s civilized sound culture, its playing very fine and sensitive – almost muted – in the second movement, but never dull. As has become a regular occurrence the world over, a phone rang right into the piano’s soulful opening phrase of that movement. If Ránki’s approach hadn’t immediately sold me, his glassy and transparent way, the très explosif dry jolts, his pointillist touch, and the Messiaen-esque birds calling from the piano and answering back from the orchestra won me over entirely: This was solid music-making, unspectacularly superb.

In as effective a work as Bluebeard’s Castle, it’s almost harder for an orchestra to impress beyond what the music already giveth than it would be for an orchestra to shine in a less munificent work. The Hungarian National Philharmonic certainly did all that was needed, breaking through with occasional, notable sumptuousness.

Part of the semi-staged aspect of the performance entailed the pair of soloists moving on a stairway between the orchestral groups. Ildikó Komlósi’s Judith – a late Elizabeth Taylor look-alike – was a bit on the overly dramatic, even jarring side and her voice sounded occasionally lost in the round of the fabulous-sounding hall. András Palerdi substituted on short notice and also had similar sometime-difficulties making himself heard from amidst the orchestra. But over the course of the opera, his regal and reticent Bluebeard eventually came to fill the role fully.

The coup de théâtre arrived behind the fifth door, which opens to the balcony overlooking Bluebeard’s kingdom. The music swoops down in grand, cinematic fashion with organ and extra brass. As per stage instructions “the light streams in – in a gleaming torrent”, and so it did here: The black scrim covering the entire back wall fell down with one quiet swoosh, revealing the additional brass and the hall’s spectacular Pécs-Mühleisen organ, its pipes now gleaming in white light.

The Müpa’s Béla Bartók National Concert Hall was nominally sold-out but several swaths of empty seats suggested no-shows usually associated with give-away tickets. (Always a lesson in the relation of cost and value.) After the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Ring Cycle and Concerto Budapest in March, this is the third very happy orchestra experience in Hungary’s capital. Either I am unusually lucky or there is something in the water, in these parts. For now, my quip stands: If you want to hear a consistently great orchestra in Vienna, take the train to Budapest!