First International Harpsichord Competition, Budapest

This article was published in the January 2001 issue of the magazine The Diapason.

When one thinks of the history of the harpsichord, Hungary is not the first country that comes to mind. Yet, as might be expected from a country that has produced so many outstanding musicians, a number of talented and enthusiastic performers have succeeded in securing the harpsichord a place in Hungarian musical life. Compared to Western Europe and the United States, this has come about relatively recently and much of the credit must go to János Sebestyén, who established the first harpsichord class at the Liszt Academy in 1970. In recognition of the harpsichord, its literature from both the past and the present, and the many outstanding performers now active Hungary, the International Music Competition, Budapest, devoted this year's activities to the harpsichord for the first time. The competition took place 19-30 September 2000 with János Sebestyén presiding over a jury consisting of Máté Hollós, Anikó Horváth, István Lantos, Ketil Haugsand, Jacques Ogg, Miklós Spányi, and Elżbieta Stefańska.

The competition opened on 19 September with a concert at the Liszt Academy in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. It provided a rare opportunity to hear all six of Bach's multiple harpsichord concertos (BWV 1060-65) as well as Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (BWV 1050) in a live concert setting. Harpsichordists Ágnes Várallyay and Borbála Dobozy shared performing duties with jury members Horváth, Haugsand, Sebestyén, Spányi, and Stefańska. It was easy to appreciate the different timbres of the four solo instruments in the excellent acoustics of the Academy's large hall. Eleven members of the Ferenc Erkel Chamber Orchestra provided discreet string support on modern instruments. The evening's highlights included a majestic performance of the C Major Concerto (BWV 1064) by Horváth, Stefańska, and Várallyay, as well as Spányi's propulsive account of the solo part in the Brandenburg Concerto. Ildiko Kertész's baroque-flute playing in the same concerto was stunning.

The competition itself took place at the Óbudai Társaskör, a small but accommodating hall perfect for an event of this type, located just one block from an ancient Roman excavation site. There were nineteen competitors in the preliminaries: six from Hungary, two from the Czech Republic, two from Italy, and one each from Greece, Yugoslavia, Canada, Spain, Armenia, Poland, Australia, China, and Japan. The required repertoire included a Fantasia by the renaissance composer Valentin (Bálint) Bakfark; a choice of one of the Bach/Vivaldi concerto transcriptions (BWV 972, 976 or 980); Soler's Sonata Rondo in G major (Rubio No. 58); and seven pieces from Bartók's Mikrokosmos (Nos. 79, 92, 117-18, 122-24). Competitors had a choice of four double-manual instruments by Vyhnálek, Klinkhamer, Dowd, and Sperrhake. The Dowd proved to be the most popular choice with the Vyhnálek a close second. Several of the competitors chose the Sperrhake for the Bartók. Perhaps surprisingly, the Soler, with its virtuoso figuration and extreme mood-swings, posed the greatest challenge to the competitors from both technical and interpretive standpoints. The Bakfark, with its improvisatory lute-style writing, proved challenging interpretively. Most of the competitors failed to make the piece sound cohesive. The Bach/Vivaldi D Major Concerto (BWV 972) was by far the most popular choice among the three concertos; nearly everyone rose to its technical challenges. Not surprisingly, several of the Hungarian competitors excelled in the Bartók, performing the miniatures with an almost fierce precision.

Twelve players were chosen for the semi-finals. The required repertoire included the second and fourth movements from the suite Four Masked Self-Portraits by Emil Petrovics, a beautiful work composed in 1958, which deserves to become part of the standard harpsichord repertoire; Haydn's Esterházy Sonata in F major (Hob. XVI: 23/Landon 38); Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor (BWV 849) or Prelude and Fugue in A major (BWV 864); and twelve minutes of selections from Rameau's Pièces de clavecin (1724, 1731) with Les cyclopes being compulsory. This round proved to be more interesting. The varied repertoire choices available brought out the strengths and weaknesses of each performer more clearly. Again, the Hungarians excelled in the contemporary work. Unfortunately, the elegance and humor required of the Haydn proved elusive to most of the competitors. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor was the popular choice and the Rameau brought out the best playing from nearly everyone. Tien Yang, currently a student in London, must be singled out for her truly stunning performance of Les cyclopes which was one of the most exciting and technically brilliant harpsichord performances I have ever heard.

Seven competitors advanced to the final round: Zsolt Balog, Dalma Cseh, and András Szepes, all from Hungary; Yago Mahugo Carles, Spain; Alessandro Pianu, Italy; Alina Ratkowska-Szadejko, Poland; and Tien Yang, China. The repertoire included a choice of one movement from Sándor Szokolay's Sunset of the Old Millenium, Dawn of the New Millenium, a work commissioned for the competition; Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BWV 903) or Toccata in D major (BWV 912); and his Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings in E major (BWV 1053). The Szokolay piece, written in an academic style that was popular three decades ago, proved a challenge to both the performers and the audience. However, after hearing movements from the work seven times in one evening, its qualities gradually became apparent. Six of the performers chose the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue with only Balog playing the Toccata in D major. The Ferenc Erkel Chamber Orchestra returned for the E major concerto with all seven competitors performing the work during one long evening. Fortunately, the last performance, given by Dalma Cseh, was easily the best of all. She possesses the rare combination of technical command, musicality, and stage presence that makes it impossible not to become involved with the music – even after six prior performances of the same piece.

The jury, which apparently had difficulty reaching a decision, finally announced the awards several hours after the final concerto performance. Zsolt Balog and Dalma Cseh shared Second Prize, while Alessandro Pianu, András Szepes, and Tien Yang shared Third Prize. First Prize was not awarded. Special prizes were awarded to Balog and Yago Mahugo Carles for the best performance of the new work by Szokolay. Orsolya Németh, of Hungary, received an award from the Hungarian Haydn Society for the best interpretation of the Haydn sonata. The competition concluded on 30 September with a gala concert in which Németh and six of the finalists participated in a program of pieces selected by the jury.

The competition proved to be a great success. It was well organized and, from the very first round, all of the participants demonstrated a high level of musicianship. The choice of repertoire proved to be somewhat controversial, yet it succeeded in its goal of finding well-rounded performers capable of traversing four centuries of harpsichord literature. Most importantly, the competition presented several talented young musicians capable of taking the harpsichord and its music well into the 21st century.

Robert Tifft

The Competition Program

Further information on the competition can be found on the page A Short History of Harpsichord Playing in Hungary.