‘Put a little smile on the face of the music.’ Andor Foldes is in rehearsal, encouraging orchestra members to capture the jubilant atmosphere of Mozart’s C major Concerto, KV 467. ‘Not so seriously,’ he cautions in his charming Hungarian accent, shaping his words with the same lilt and buoyancy that characterise his playing. Foldes was very serious, however, when it came to the role of the interpreter: the highly intellectual musician believed that a concert artist is not merely a performer but a ‘re-creator of great music’, stating that ‘in the realm of notes, where the little black dots reign supreme, we need an interpreter, a musical performer who translates the composer’s thoughts into the language of the particular instrument for which they are written.’ The duty of interpreter, Foldes espoused, is to reveal in performance the composer’s actual thoughts and thereby bring to life the spirit of the music.
Foldes noted that a composer’s thoughts and intentions are inevitably filtered through the personality of the performer, which accounts for the wide array of approaches one can hear amongst musicians. ‘It is not that they want to be different, but because of differences in their musical background, mental make-up, taste – even their blood pressures – we always get hyphenated performances. We can never hear only Beethoven: we listen to Beethoven-Schnabel, or Beethoven-Toscanini, or Beethoven-Heifetz.’ Not that this need be an issue when a performer was inspired and informed: Foldes wrote that when in his native Hungary he attended a concert of the legendary cellist Pablo Casals, the performance ‘was not all Bach, Beethoven and Falla – but Casals, Casals and Casals again. But did this diminish my enchantment? Not a bit. It was great. It was unforgettable.’
Foldes’s observation that innumerable factors shape performers’ interpretations was accompanied by a belief that musicians need to evolve continually over the course of their careers. In a 1968 interview, he noted that he ‘would be very sad indeed’ if his playing had not changed in the 45 years he had thus far been presenting Mozart’s music in public: ‘as one grows and works and plays [it] many times in many places with many orchestras under many different circumstances, one does get a little nearer to what is essential.’ He added that ‘each performance is an exciting thing, it is a living thing – it is something which happens today, and every day is different.’
His views on evolution and spontaneity in performance were at odds with the permanent nature of commercial studio recordings, a challenge of which Foldes was very much aware. ‘Recording a disc is one of the most difficult tasks for a performing artist … [as] what is recorded is there for eternity … It must be a version that will stand the test of time, and yet not be “set in stone”; it must capture the essence of that intuitive moment, and yet convey the definitiveness imposed upon it by the very nature of the situation.’ Yet as evidenced by his extensive critically-lauded discography for the Deutsche Grammophon label, which covers a wide array of solo and concerted works, Foldes clearly valued recordings and therefore sought to bring as much aliveness and spontaneity to his readings in the studio as he did to performances before an audience.
Foldes is less lionized today than many of his contemporaries in spite of his having had a distinguished international career spanning seven decades; concertgoers and record collectors, however, remember his artistry with great fondness and respect. The versatile musician was not only a prolific concert performer and recording artist but also a pedagogue, teacher, transcriber, and writer. He gave his first public appearance at the age of eight playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B flat major KV 450 with István Kerner leading the Budapest Philharmonic, and Beethoven followed the next year when he performed his First Piano Concerto.
It is with these two composers that we explore Foldes’s artistry in this volume, which features alongside Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy the five Mozart concertos he recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in the decade from 1954 to 1963. In these vibrant readings made at the midpoint of the pianist’s career (when he was aged 40 to 49), the musician’s quest for evolution and vitality is evident: Foldes plays consistently with breathtaking simplicity, presenting this divinely inspired music with disarming directness.
Describing his experience as a youth in Hungary hearing Bruno Walter play and conduct a Mozart concerto, Foldes stated that all in attendance ‘were happy, so obviously happy, in the service of a higher power – Mozart’s spirit’. Fortunately for posterity, Foldes has done similar justice to both Mozart and Beethoven in the accounts presented here (Mozart-Foldes and Beethoven-Foldes, as he himself might express it). Andor Foldes puts a smile on the face of the music as well as in the ears of the listener.