Anyone who has ever seen Péter Szabó play at any concert of the Budapest Festival Orchestra - where he, as the lead cellist, is usually seated in the middle, directly opposite the conductor - has surely said to themselves what I myself have thought so many times: he is a person who really makes the orchestra recognizable. He is the embodiment of extraordinary commitment to music, profound empathy and spirituality, and an ability to identify with the pieces. Péter Szabó was born in a family of musicians in Marosvásárhely, has played music since the age of five and has perfect pitch, which can be both a blessing and a curse. He has ambitions to conduct, but is also increasingly interested in music history. He celebrates his 60th birthday together with his daughter, Ildikó, who is also a cellist, in Selmeci utca on May 30. Interview by Júlia Váradi.
I guess your intimate relationship with music comes from your family background. When did it all start?
Péter Szabó: I had this kind of relationship with music from my early childhood, thanks to my father, of course, who was one of the pillars of the minority music scene in Transylvania. He spent every minute of his entire life with music, and his devoted work served as an example also to his children.
Is it true that your younger brother is also a musician?
P. Sz.: Yes, he was a musician for a long time, but then, unfortunately “left the trade”, although he graduated from the Liszt Academy as a fantastic violinist and then, with a Fulbright scholarship, received a Master’s degree in Baltimore at the end of the 1980s. But after he went on parental leave as a concertmaster of Budapest' Opera House, his contract was unexpectedly terminated.
What sort of childhood should we imagine? Did you two practice everyday?
P. Sz.: Exactly. My father believed that the example of the great predecessors was very important and he used to say that after some musical activity, you can take a rest by doing some other musical activity. So if you have played the cello for long enough, you should study some music history. For a break, read, and listen to the works of the greats, as he himself did.
Did you never rebel?
P. Sz.: No, possibly because my father discovered quite early that I had absolute pitch, so I can identify the pitch of any sound at any time, starting with the sound of a creak of a chair. Which is partly a blessing and partly a curse. I am often irritated by out-of-tune sounds. But when my father told me this fact, he said that I must preserve and take good care of this extraordinary ability. As I also teach now, this is a very important memory for me. It had a great impact on me, the four-year-old boy, and that was one reason why I never felt like rebelling against music practice. Of course, I’m not saying that I was any better than the other kids, I did sports like swimming or fencing and played with the others just like everybody else.
At the same time, you had piano lessons at the age of four and then started playing the cello. That’s quite early!
P. Sz.: That was because my father thought that playing the piano is the foundation of musical studies. Everybody who chooses to play an instrument, needs to be able to play the piano. The daughter of my piano teacher played the cello. And for some reason, her instrument always lay under the piano. So I, at the age of four, spent more time under the piano next to the cello, than at the piano. That’ how my intimate relationship with this instrument started.
We know that it was not easy back then, to be Hungarian in Transylvania, especially with regards to higher education. Where did you apply?
P. Sz.: Several books have been written about what it was like to live there as part of a minority and there are still things to explore. It is well-known that a numerus clausus policy was applied. This meant that very few Hungarian students were able to attend higher-level education, while there was a constant supression of classical culture. The number of Hungarian students at universities was consistently reduced. In the year when I applied to the Academy in Kolozsvár, there was only one place in the cello program.
When did you finally decide to continue your studies in Hungary?
P. Sz.: As my father had very early on established excellent relationships with the greatest figures of the Hungarian music scene, including György Kurtág, András Szőllősy and many others, even in the most difficult times. I went to Hungary every two years, as soon as we could get a new passport, starting in my teenage years. So I participated in almost every Bartók Seminar. That was where I met Zoltán Kocsis, Péter Eötvös and other excellent young musicians. As a result, I had a desire to study in Budapest early on.
When did you decide to permanently emigrate?
P. Sz.: By the second half of the 1980s, the dictatorship had become so thorough that there was almost no chance for a Hungarian artist or musician to perform in Romania. The strict rule was that only one Hungarian musician could play at a concert. Our situation had become increasingly suffocating, so in 1988, I decided to move to Hungary permanently, along with my wife and my parents.
How welcoming were Hungarian people and the Hungarian music scene? As far as I can remember, quite a lot of artists, writers and musicians moved to Hungary at that time, and it seemed to me that most of them were well received. Was that really so?
P. Sz.: When we came here, I had already graduated from the Music Academy with a degree as an artist, but I definitely wanted to continue my studies, and I even had the opportunity to study with Kurtág and Ferenc Rados. They immediately accepted me and I obtained my second degree at the Liszt Academy in 1991. But still, those years were not easy. I got off the train at Nyugati Railway Station with just four forints and the first two-forint coin was swallowed by the public phone when I tried to call my friends. Then the Liszt Academy helped me to get a scholarship as a soloist at the National Philharmonic Orchestra, and I was also able to become a demonstrator for Professor László Mező at the Liszt Academy. So in all aspects, I gradually managed to settle in.
Looking at the long years that have passed since then, I think we can agree that you have achieved everything that can be achieved in your field, and a lot more. You have played in some of the world’s greatest concert halls, performed as a soloist with the world’s most famous musicians, you compose music, you are considered one of the most highly respected teachers and you are the principal cellist of the BFO, one of the best, if not the best, orchestras in the world. What would you still like to achieve after so many great things?
P. Sz.: I’ve always felt that it is my duty to pass on the fantastic ethos that I inherited from those masters during my career and, of course, from my father. And, indeed, I think I have managed to do so. The reason I was able to join the Budapest Festival Orchestra's initial group of musicians was that when everyone at the Philharmonic Orchestra was let go and I was strongly considering going abroad, Zoli Kocsis told me not to go anywhere, because he and Iván Fischer were establishing a new orchestra. I hesitated a bit, but I believed in the artistic power already emanating from the orchestra’s leading musicians at that time. For a while, about six or seven years, I was also a member of Camerata Salzburg, but then I joined what was already called the Budapest Festival Orchestra - permanently. Because the attitude to art, and music, of course, represented by Iván Fischer is very close to mine and very similar to how I grew up. Just like my father, Iván believes that talent is a capacity. The way he supports the versatility of musicians has for example, given me the opportunity to fulfill an old desire of mine to conduct, which I may still do in the future. I have some conducting ambitions, and maybe not without reason.
You were one of the winners of the BFO’s conducting competition.
P. Sz.: Yes, that was a great experience but it doesn’t really lead to anything specific. However, it does reinforce my interest in this activity. The other thing is that I also have a growing interest in musicology. I’ve started to dig deeper into some so-far-unexplored fields of music history both of Hungary and the world. I managed to discover and publish some concertos that nobody had studied before.
And we haven’t even mentioned your wonderful daughter, Ildikó, for whom you must have destined a fate similar to that which your father had destined for you. And right now, this all seems to be really being fulfilled. What did you have to do with this?
P. Sz.: We could see how much a small child can be influenced by their environment when Ildikó came to us at the age of four and a half and asked for a teacher to teach her to play the cello.
Didn’t you consider yourself her teacher?
P. Sz.: Not directly, but I closely followed every activity of the cello teacher, and I was very attentive and "present" for my daughter every moment she needed me.
Did you know right from the beginning that she was talented?
P. Sz.: I could see that she approached the instrument as someone at home with music. And it was not without reason that at the age of 11, she was already a student at the Liszt Academy in the class for the exceptionally-talented.
You are going to perform together on the occasion of your 60th birthday. What are you going to play and who chose the program?
P. Sz.: Ildikó suggested that we perform Schubert’s String Quintet with two cellos. We already have made some recordings together, but have never played this piece. We thought, the birthday was the rare occasion when we should play it together.
Thank you for the interview.