On 1 May 2005, a year to the day after Hungary joined the European Union, the Berliner Philharmoniker gave their fifteenth European Concert at the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest. The magnificent neoclassical building was opened in 1884, fifteen years after the Vienna State Opera, a monument in stone enshrining the perpetual rivalry between the two capitals of the Danube monarchy. At its official opening, Kaiser Franz Joseph is said to have struck a diplomatic note when remarking that the opera house in Budapest may have been smaller in size than its Viennese counterpart, but that it was undoubtedly the more beautiful of the two.
As a homage to the host nation, the concert programme featured Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto performed by the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who had made his debut with the orchestra two years earlier. Kavakos was born in 1967 and is widely regarded as one of the most exciting musicians of his generation. As the orchestra’s Artist in Residence during the 2012/13 season, he performed a total of six programmes that proved high points in the concert calendar at the Berlin Philharmonie. In this concert, he showed how delicate fragility and unrestrained energy are combined in this late work by Bartók.
The Budapest concert opened with Berlioz’s overture Le Corsaire, a classic example of the brilliant art of instrumentation designed to showcase the qualities of Sir Simon Rattle and his orchestra. The second half of the programme comprised Stravinsky’s The Firebird, a no less spectacular orchestral piece inspired by the folk music of its composer’s native Russia, just as Bartók was inspired by the folk music of his native Hungary.