Swept into the sound of a true Hungarian epic

Times Staff Writer

Bartok composed his Concerto for Orchestra in 1943 as a dying man in the United States. It doesn’t tell a story, but it’s generally regarded as a longing look at his homeland, Hungary. It shifts from heaviness in the first movement to life assertion in the last.

The Hungarians have taken it to heart. In the hands of conductor Zoltan Kocsis and the Hungarian National Philharmonic, Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, it became a national epic.

Perhaps the small size of the theater -- some 750 seats -- had something to do with it. An orchestra simply fills this hall with sound, and probably the grounds outside as well. Details and relationships that might be difficult to hear in a large house are here virtually in your face.


But Kocsis’ well-judged conducting and the players’ commitment to the music had much more to do with it. Relying on fast tempos and only brief pauses between the five movements, Kocsis enforced a sweeping momentum that never slacked from the great awakening to danger in the work’s opening measures.

The third movement, which uses material that depicts a lake of tears in the composer’s early opera “Bluebeard’s Castle,” became an overwhelming memorial to the nation’s dead and missing. Even the parody of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”) fell in line, less as mocking the Soviet composer as mocking the country’s militarism, which was trumped by the return of the tender love music it interrupted.

The hall was less kind to the other two Hungarian works on the program.

Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, in which Kocsis served as soloist as well as conductor, sounded bombastic and fragmentary and verged on the incoherent, for all his passionate work at the keyboard. His divided duties didn’t help either.

Kodaly’s “Variations on a Hungarian Folksong (‘The Peacock’)” may mean a great deal to Hungarians because the peacock for them symbolizes freedom from oppression. But without that association, the work sounded like an oversized romantic film score that utilized most of the orchestra most of the time. It came nowhere near the significance of Bartok’s memorial to his country.