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INTERVIEW | Zoltán Fejérvári: A Winning Image of Hungarian Classical Music

By Jennifer Liu on May 18, 2017

Zoltán Fejérvári (Photo: Brent Calis)
Zoltán Fejérvári (Photo: Brent Calis)

Zoltán Fejérvári feels a deep connection to the piano music of his homeland. At this year’s Montreal International Music Competition (MIMC), he successfully made his case for Hungary, emerging as the Competition’s grand prize winner which includes the $30,000 City of Montreal First Prize, plus the Joseph Rouleau Career Development Grant worth $50,000 (funded by the Azrieli Foundation).

Fejérvári’s understanding of Bartók’s music runs so deep, he had prepared the Piano Concerto No. 3 on his own, having already completed his formal music training in Budapest in 2011. Consider also that two days before his competition-clinching performance, he hadn’t yet memorized the Concerto.

“I was very focused on the first round, less focused on the second round, and not focused at all for the concerto […] After the second round, I went to practice directly. Of course, once you’ve played this piece it comes back much faster. But still it was pretty tricky.” The Bartók was a sound choice in many ways: he knew that this Concerto’s neo-classical aesthetic would be a suitable introduction to Hungary’s music for newcomers: “It is kind of classical, but it’s still Bartók, so the language is still familiar to me. And I thought that it’s not that hard either for the orchestra or for the piano, so we can pull it off.”

From reintegrating the notes, to synchronizing the concerto with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and conductor Claus Peter Flor, a lot of ground was covered in the final six days of the MIMC. Looking back after the final gala performance, “the first [performance] was still at the competition and I was pretty stressed out. The days before, the rehearsal was very rushed; we had limited time. You have this thing in your stomach and you somehow knew that it was going to be judged. And of course, before the rehearsals today we already had the concert experience, the concert acts like three rehearsals. We knew much better what to do, how to use our time, so we had a great rehearsal and it made the performance more expectable, easier to communicate. It felt like a better performance.”

At which point, Maestro Flor approaches us and interjects heartily, “Bartók won, don’t forget! Which competition has the courage to let Bartók win??”

But as our Hungarian subject points out, that concerto isn’t an obscure choice in his homeland. So how big of an influence does Bartók have in Hungary? “Really big. I mean, really big.” Bartók’s mark on their music is indelible: “20th-century composers can’t really avoid this influence, so all the composers in Hungary started with this language. Depending on how good they were, they found their own languages.”

A heritage which found its way to Fejérvári, who effortlessly incorporates the rhythmic lilt of the Hungarian language into his playing. After all, it’s been said that there are linguistic similarities between the language and Bartók’s music, right? “100% percent. It’s a little easier for us, but absolutely not impossible to understand his language for non-Hungarian people. Once you understand basic rules, you somehow understand… that Bartók’s language, let’s say Bartók’s music, is always speaking. Not just singing, but speaks. So it always has to have this parlando, rubato quality. But yes, certainly when I played the bass written in the third movement, words immediately come to mind and you can just compose a text there, there’s so much about the language.”

Zoltán Fejérvári and MIMC President André Bourbeau (Photo: Brent Calis)
Zoltán Fejérvári and MIMC President André Bourbeau (Photo: Brent Calis)

If we were to compare Bartók’s legacy to that of another compatriot: Franz Liszt? “Well, Liszt was born in Hungary and his father was Hungarian. But he didn’t speak the language. His mother was Austrian, and he was raised in Paris. So Liszt was kind of cosmopolitan.” There seems to be a trend of Hungarian composers who apply their musico-linguistic toolbox to the Romantic medium: “I mean, Bartók was a Romantic pianist; his piano teacher was a Liszt pupil, so the language was absolutely Romantic: poetic, rubato piano playing. […] So his playing is very free all the time, always. Even when he plays his own music. He was very precise, but then as he plays it doesn’t seem to be very strict, it’s always free. So it’s almost improvised. I mean, that’s how he composed — the first step was always improvisation.”

Amongst a classical music crowd that finds comfort in so-called “evergreen” piano concertos, Fejérvári’s competition program bucked the trend. “I don’t know how significant [my win] is… I choose the program that I feel. I don’t consider myself to be an extreme virtuoso. Of course, I can play, but I think my stronger profile in music is more about poetry in music, and not virtuosity.” His success at the MIMC took even himself by surprise: “On one hand, I didn’t really expect this. Because [my] image of myself was always like, ‘You’ve got some talent,’ but I always thought that I never would be able to play at that level, or in such a way that a competition demands, let’s say, or what you need for winning a competition. And it surprised me a lot that the jury was interested in this kind of music-making.” Indeed, the MIMC had assembled a panel that was sensitive to performance in a globalized community, and they should be commended for their openness to a work that hasn’t established itself in musical centres outside Hungary. All while upholding the ultimate goal of competitions: selecting candidates based on musical ability and faithfulness to the composer’s wishes.

Apart from Fejérvári, the entire crop of MIMC pianists this year offered top-level presentations. In particular, Giuseppe Guarrera was hot on his heels in each round: “A part of the jury probably would have voted for him [for first prize], you never know; that’s what tells the rest of the prizes [recall that the Italian won second prize, as well as all the special prizes except the Best Canadian Artist Award]. But it’s really fine, I absolutely can understand.” It’s hard to tell then, which of the two are happier! “I mean, he’s younger than me: he’s 25, I’m 30. If he continues this way, I think he’ll win a competition at some point.” Fejérvári himself arrived in Montreal having decided that the MIMC would be his last competition. “And I hadn’t done many competitions at all; this is my number four competition in 10 years. And I don’t know why I did it actually!”

For Fejérvári, life before the MIMC had already been anchored for some time in Budapest, where he studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music from 2005 to 2011. Numerous Hungarians – friends as well as new fans — tracked his ascension at the MIMC: “The last two days, I think I got — I think I’m not exaggerating — 100 emails, which is a really nice feeling, really wonderful. So they’ve been following, and I’m sort of proud!” He remains in the Hungarian capital, where he is highly involved in the chamber music scene: “I have a part-time job coaching chamber music. I play lots of chamber music, probably from now on I will play more solo. But I definitely will keep playing chamber music when I need it, I really love it.”

And what is life as a classical musician like in Hungary? “It’s very good, very rich; the country is small so basically you know everybody in the music life. We have lots of venues, lots of talent; good people and good orchestras come to Hungary. Basically as a musician, you live in the capital. There is maybe one other city that provides a decent orchestra, but if you really want something, then you have to live in Budapest. But then the capital is full of music life.” Eminent ensembles such as Iván Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra come to mind: “We have maybe three good orchestras in the capital, and an amazing concert hall for the big orchestras. There is the Great Hall of the Liszt Academy, which is more like a chamber music hall and very ideal for recitals.” A venue which would suit the likes of pianist András Schiff, who hasn’t been living in Hungary for the past 40 years.

And why not a crash course on the makeup of Hungary’s people and topography? “This is an interesting geographical situation. So this is sort of a valley, Hungary, surrounded by mountains and surrounded by very different nations, mostly Slavic nations but also German-type of people from the West; then Romania, the Latin type of area. Then you probably can’t really speak about a… ‘clean’ nation, because it’s always very mixed, a variety of nations; [it’s] still a kind of a wonder that the language remains spoken! So probably this is the strongest element of the nation. It’s very colourful, at least it used to be very colourful, let’s not get to the politics…”

Does Budapest hold enough appeal for Fejérvári to remain there in the long run? “For now I’m fine to live there, because I go out the country pretty much so I can breathe fresh air! But I like actually to speak my native language, and I’m happy that I can teach there [in Budapest] so I can be a part of the education of the next generation.” A new generation of promising musicians, which Fejérvári can now consider himself a part of. What does he imagine for himself after the Competition? “Only time will tell; I don’t know anything, really. Lots of new opportunities, and we didn’t get to the point to talk about dates and places [with music organizations], but as far as I know they are interested in my ideas about projects I’d like to do. I’m thinking about maybe recording a CD, stuff like that.”

Everything felt right for him here: “I like Montreal a lot. I like it because it’s not a huge city.” He would have liked to take in more of the city’s arts and culture scene: “I was planning to go to museums, but then I won! So I couldn’t; I didn’t have time.”

You can’t have everything in the world, but Fejérvári will gladly take first prize from the Montreal International Music Competition back to Hungary. Aside from crowning this year’s top pianist, the award could also herald a shift in classical music’s trajectory.


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