BBC Music Magazine: Concerto Budapest

Explore the brave, unique sound of this progressive and productive symphonic orchestra with more than 100 years of history, based in Budapest, Hungary

BBC Music Magazine 3 OCT 2019

Since 2007 the Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the orchestra has been András Keller, the world-renowned Hungarian violinist, founder of the Keller Quartet, Professor of Violin at London’s Guildhall School of Music. He has been awarded more than 70 international prizes. Under his leadership, the orchestra – especially famed for its interpretations of Bartók, Kurtág and Ligeti – has acquired an overwhelming, ever-expanding classical repertoire. Highly acclaimed soloists are frequent guests of the orchestra, and include Gidon Kremer, Krzysztof Penderecki, Boris Berezovsky, Heinz Holliger, Angela Hewitt, Isabelle Faust, Steven Isserlis and Evgeni Koroliov. The honorary president of the orchestra is György Kurtág.


Concerto Budapest is evidently one of the most prolific Hungarian orchestras. It performs more than 80 concerts a year with 55 different concert programmes and is expanding its repertoire with more than 25 new pieces a year. The orchestra also showcases the highest number of contemporary pieces in Hungary, and set up a contemporary music festival called ‘The Day of Listening and Silence’, which is unique in the European music scene. The festival has 15 concerts with 53 pieces played across a single day. Moreover, Concerto Budapest established a chamber formation to be the ambassador of contemporary music all around the world, named Ligeti Ensemble.


There are plenty of symphony orchestras all over the world. How would you encapsulate the particular sound of Concerto Budapest?

Thirty years ago, when I launched my career, the sound of the greatest string quartets and symphony orchestras could be instantaneously differentiated. One could say after just a few bars whether one was listening to the Hagen, Alban Berg or Keller Quartet, not to mention the grand classics, Végh Quartet, Quartetto Italiano or Juilliard Quartet. Just as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Frigyes Reiner was clearly recognizable from just a few notes, so was the Philadelphia Orchestra. Now Concerto Budapest have the chance to make their musical personality clearly distinguishable. I consider the distinguishing characteristic to be that we are Hungarian. This also means that the Bartók tradition strongly defines our musical way of thinking, as well as my greatest master Kurtág's teachings.

“It is astounding how perfectly and passionately they play Bartók!” Tan Dun

What does the Bartók tradition mean to you?

It is my mother tongue. I know that Bartók is held in high esteem all over the world, and generally he is misunderstood with the greatest goodwill, but it is not permissible to see his music as only exotic and Hungarian when it is actually primarily classical and universal. The wonder of Bartók is that, through folk music, he discovered those energies of the earth that allow him to address that ancient, elementary side of humanity. Only few are capable of this. The way Bartók transplanted folk music roots into the history of Western composed music is a totally unique phenomena. For us it is a real duty to deliver the authentic Bartok experience to larger audiences. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra for example is undoubtedly an eternal and yet easily accessible masterpiece. This Autumn we will pay tribute to his genius with this piece on our grand scale Asian Tour playing at Bangkok’s International Festival of Dance & Music and the 21st China Shanghai International Arts Festival. His universal genius makes this special East-West spiritual encounter an inspirational experience.

And what does the Kurtág tradition mean?

It is difficult to put into words because Kurtág communicates not primarily through words. The most important thing is to understand and experience what happens in the music. It sounds simple, but in practice it is not easy to implement – there are a huge number of instructions in the score. The most difficult is how I am able to get musicians to not just play sforzato but actually to understand why it is there. All composers’ instructions can be realized in a thousand different ways, but Kurtág teaches that the most important is what happens to the musician in the meantime. Whether they live what is played, whether they play with absolute sincerity. I had the good fortune as a soloist and chamber musician to learn from Kurtág; I played the great violin concertos with his piano accompaniment, and I could understand what relation the notes could have with each other through his music. Through the music of Kurtág, I became much closer to the music of Bach, Schubert and Mozart. There is nothing without contemporary music. Without it, the classical tradition cannot be comprehended. That is why we invented a day long contemporary music festival called ‘The Day of Listening and Silence’, with more than 51 pieces played a day, which is unique in the European musical scene.

András Keller with György Kurtág and Norman Lebrecht


“András Keller has been my best student and colleague for thirty years.” György Kurtág

You have initiated a major project: You are recording the most significant ninth symphonies in music history, with the German publisher, TACET. Could you tell us about the plan?

Ever since Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the number nine has had a special significance for all symphony composers. There are many stories and music history curiosities attached to these works. What is more, it is extremely interesting how the burden of Beethoven’s Ninth spurred on composers – let’s say Bruckner or Mahler – and how Shostakovich gave a hidden ‘thumbs down’ to Stalin when he decided that his own ninth symphony would not evoke the expected heroic tone, instead writing a 24-minute-long mini-masterpiece. But in reality, the whole recording project with TACET is much more than this because these symphonies are all late works, that is, I would not over-fetishize the number nine. Tchaikovsky only made it to six symphonies, but the Sixth is one of the most harrowing works in the history of music, unsurpassable from many aspects. All these late symphonies are extremely dramatic works and they reflect my character, which obviously also played a part in the shaping of the plan.


In 2018 a stunning TV series was produced about the everyday life of the orchestra. By combining the rawness of reality and the depth of documentary, True Musicians allows the viewer to experience the unmasked story of Classical music across 10 episodes. It gives an intimate insight into the dramatic highs and challenging lows of orchestral life. From the inspiring to the humorous, the series sends the viewer on a thrilling journey around the life of a musical maestro...

True Musicians won Award of Merit prize at IndieFEST Film Award in the USA, and Best TV Series prize at Los Angeles Film Award in 2018. The writer and creative producer of the series is Imre Szabó-Stein, and the directors are Dávid Géczy and Imre Szabó-Stein.