Portrait Of An Englishman – The Tablet

Posted on May 30, 2012

“Members of the Manchester Camerata perform on their feet, not sitting. Under their brilliant new director, they are marking out a distinctive role in Britain’s musical life.”

Richard Jones reviews Manchester Camerata’s Portrait on an Hungarian: Part 2 concert in January and previews Portrait of Faith (4 April), and the Music Directorship of Gábor Takács-Nagy for the Tablet.

“If anyone needed prodding towards the idea of music as worship, Manchester Camerata has labelled its Holy Week concert this year “Portrait of Faith”. It includes two overtly religious Bach cantatas, an anonymous epitaph for a young woman in Beethoven’s ‘Elegischer gesang’, and two textless orchestral works by John Tavener (Eternal memory) and Arvo Part (Summa).”

“The man behind the programming, is its new music director Gábor Takács-Nagy, whom I meet after an exhilerating concert in Manchester’s elegant Bridgewater Hall. There is great pride in the 40 year old orchestra’s reputation.

The people around the maestro tell me to think of Camerata not as Manchester’s third orchestra, but as one of the city’s three. the Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic are bigger, but, as I discover, Camerata is lithe, versatile and intimate, an expanded quartet rather than a reduced symphony orchestra, just as the founding violinist of the Takács String Quartet would like it.”

“I am not a religious man”, says Takács-Nagy, “but music to me is spiritual”. I ask him what he means, and he cites the previous night’s fiery, volatile performance of Haydn’s last symphony. “In Haydn I notice we have some problems with synchoronicity, but the players are open to it and they adjust. I live dangerously. this is how the Takács Quartet played – improvising the concert.”

“We had accidents, but there was always this dilemma: on theone hand we want perfection, but, on the other, sponineity. This is what I mean. It’s about living the moment. Yesterday it was not totally perfect but it was spiritual.”

He describes the “Portrait” concerts – there are portraits also of Love, War and “And Englishman” – as basically a marketing concept. He tries to capture the spiritual in all music, clearly not just in those programmes which have a religious provenance. He loves the feeling that he is shaping a living entity in the music.

He conducts without the baton, moulding as it were the clay of sound between his fingers. I ask him whether he conducts every orchestra this way. “I never use a baton,” he replies, “but this is not from choice. It is because of an injury to my arm and thumb. This is why I had to leave the Quartet. I could no longer hold a bow and I cannot hold a stick.”

Being struck down at the height of a brilliant career – the Takács Quartet was and still is one of the world’s greatest ensembles – was a cruelty that shocked the music work in the early 1990’s. Takács-Nagy darkens at the memory. “I tried conducting and could only learn in this way. But there are others. Gergiev and Boulez for instance, who also prefer only hands. A baton is more precide, especially for the wind, who sit further away. They need to see when the downbeat is arriving. But hands are less formal than a stick, and help give this volatile feel. They are not giving every detail, not dividing the bars, but giving players their own power. I’m not conducting every beat the players feel that they have more control. I can leave the pulse to them and be more responsible for the overall effect. Also standing up helps this. This is the first time that an orchestra stands up with me.

The players, with the exception of the cellos, had performed the Haydn on their feet, balancing on their toes, so that one had the sense of the music passing through the floor and into the musicians like an electric current. The theory, which seems to work, is that everyone performs with more energy and alertness than they do sitting. Takács-Nagy’s dynamic leader Giovanni Guzzo, led the fray, bobbing and weaving with the beat and infecting those behind him with visible enthusiasm.

Guzzo too is new, brought in like a disciple by the conductor to lead the otherwise young local players. “We weren’t exactly a package but whan I arrived, I let it be known that he is an exceptional player”, explains Takács-Nagy. “He is phenomenal, charismatic. He also works for the Budapest Festival Orchestra for ten weeks every year, as do I. We share the same musical language, he makes changes and is doing a lot of talking with the strings about speeds and bowing.

Tackács-Nagy is an engaging conductor who creates a rapport with audiences. He comes on with a microphone like an evangelical preacher. “Hungary never won a war.” he says of his country introducing works by Bartok and Kodaly, “we are too amiable. But there is fire and passion in our music.”

He certainly has more wit. Laughter breaks through his Hungarian seriousness. “Our national anthan begins, ‘Oh God, give us a good mood and prosperity,'” he quotes with a sombre churchgoers face. “It must be the only national hymn that starts from a position of gloom!”

The Tablet – Portrait of an Englishman, Richard Jones, critic – The Tablet