Over the 75 years since the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was founded, with countless concerts in Hungary and abroad, and its radio, TV and CD recordings of almost the entire symphony and oratorio repertoire, it has won its place in the vanguard of symphony orchestras. The world’s leading critics are unanimous in praising its evenness of sound, its flexibility, and its patronage in promoting and recording contemporary Hungarian music. The Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra has since the beginning been the central figure in the annual Budapest Wagner Days.
The combination of radio work and outstanding music-making is largely due to the role was played by Ernő Dohnányi, who was appointed principal music director of Hungarian Radio in 1931. It was he who initiated the founding in 1936 of the chamber orchestra that can be considered the core of the later symphony orchestra. Dohnányi invited the most talented musicians to join the group. The orchestra was directed by István Bertha, to a quite exceptional standard: after a few months’ work together even British radio stations was broadcasting programmes by the chamber orchestra. This was the Hungarian orchestra that played to the largest audience, and in May 1939 it gave its one thousandth concert.
Challenge upon challenge, the rapidly expanding repertoire necessitated a gradual increase in the headcount of the orchestra. The Radio Orchestra gradually grew into a symphony orchestra, and it seemed natural that they should want to play to the audience not only over the radio waves, but in concerts too. The group debuted as a symphony orchestra on 7 October 1943, conducted by Ernő Dohnányi.
After the war the the composer László Lajtha was entrusted with reorganizing the orchestra. He invited János Ferencsik and Tibor Polgár to assist him as colleagues. The first radio broadcast following the war (1 May 1945) began with music: the Radio Orchestra was born again.
A few months later Mozart’s Magic Flute was programmed, and the first oratorio performance (Haydn’s Creation) took place in January 1946. In the first few years the orchestra generally played in the studio, and could rarely be heard in public concerts, but these rare events were of especially great importance. It was the Radio Orchestra that first played Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in Hungary (on 26 September 1947). Alongside Ferencsik and Polgár, outstandingly talented conductors directed the orchestra, such as Otto Klemperer, who stood at the helm of the orchestra thirteen times, and presented the symphonic works of composers such as Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss, who at the time were neglected in Hungary.
Foreign radio stations began to express greater interest. The premiere of the Vivaldi pieces found by Bence Szabolcsi was broadcast by the Italian Radio, and a concert comprising works by László Lajtha and Zoltán Kodály in 1948 was broadcast by radio stations in London, Paris, and Prague.
From 1949 János Ferencsik was at the helm of the orchestra as principal conductor, but two years later, due to his burgeoning duties at the opera house, he passed the baton to László Somogyi. From 1953 the orchestra again played Bartók’s revolutionary masterpieces (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, etc.), then in 1954 the Cantata profana, the Piano Concerto No. 3 with Annie Fischer, and the Miraculous Mandarin. That same year Sviatoslav Richter gave his first orchestral concert in Hungary, and the Radio Orchestra was conducted by Vilmos Komor. In parallel with this the orchestra played a decisive role in enriching operatic life in Hungary. They made the first entirely Hungarian-language recording of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and this was followed by Bizet’s Carmen. Opera recordings continued to be a priority task later too.
After the 1956 revolution, almost everything had to be started over. Many musicians, including the principal conductor László Somogyi, had emigrated. In the final month of the year, with János Ferencsik, Vilmos Komor, and Miklós Lukács conducting, the orchestra recorded works by its original founder, Ernő Dohnányi, whose works had been banned in Hungary for over ten years. In the 1957-58 season Tamás Bródy took over the orchestra as permanent conductor, but in the first tour in Western Europe (Paris and Brussels) György Lehel and Miklós Lukács conducted. To play with the Radio Orchestra, or to conduct it, became an attractive artistic challenge. A few names from the late 1950s: David Oistrakh, Ruggiero Ricci, Lazar Berman, Emil Gilels, George Georgescu, Pierre Dervaux, and most especially: Lamberto Gardelli, with whom the orchestra began what was to be a long and extremely fruitful working relationship.
At the end of 1964 György Lehel became the orchestra’s principal conductor, and he remained director-conductor until his death in 1989. He did a great deal for new Hungarian music: between 1950 and 1988 he conducted the orchestra in premieres of 219 works by 58 Hungarian composers. In concerts given with the Hungarian Radio Choir (founded in 1950) the orchestra played more and more of the most important oratorios and choral works of the repertoire, often shining in the most exacting, demanding music. In 1971 the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was the first Hungarian orchestra to tour in North America. It was conducted by György Lehel, and Zoltán Kocsis, Dezső Ránki, and Ferenc Tarjáni performed as soloists. One of the 26 concerts was given in Carnegie Hall in New York. ‘The Budapest Orchestra altogether a first-class orchestra, up to the best standards anywhere. It is a supple and homogeneous group, with proficient firstdesk players’, wrote Harold C. Schonberg.
In 1974 the Hungarian Television held the first international conducting competition, and the conductors who won first and second prizes, Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi and Ádám Medveczky later became frequent guests of the orchestra.
During the “Lehel era” as the group rose to become one of the leading orchestras, it hosted the world’s most sought-after conductors. As well as those mentioned earlier, in Hungary and abroad it worked with conductors like Claudio Abbado, John Barbirolli, Paul Capolongo, Antal Doráti, Péter Eötvös, Wolfgang Gönnenwein, István Kertész, Igor Markevitch, Charles Münch, Giuseppe Patané, Karl Richter, Helmuth Rilling, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Paul Sacher, Peter Schreier, Sir George Solti, Leopold Stokowski and Carlo Zecchi.
After the death of György Lehel, work continued under the musical direction of András Ligeti , then in 1993 the world-famous pianist and conductor Tamás Vásáry took the helm of the orchestra.
Tamás Vásáry led the orchestra until 2004. Later László Kovács was first conductor, and Ádám Fischer was the principal musical director. Fischer initiated and leads the Budapesti Wagner Days, which has garnered international attention, and started in 2006 with an acclaimed performance of Parsifal. By 2013, Wagner’s centenary year, all of his large operas had featured in the programme. In 2008 Stephen d’Agostino, an American with close links to the Hungarian music scene, submitted a successful bid for the directorship of the Radio Orchestra, and he occupied the post from 2009 to 2011. Then a dynamic, innovative leader was sought for the orchestra, and the choice fell on composer-conductor Gregory Vajda. His artistic programme places an emphasis on modern music: “I believe that Hungarian works of the 20th and 21st centuries should come back into standard concert repertoire and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra should play a leading role in this.”
Currently the permanent conductor of the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is János Kovács, the honorary principal music director in perpetuity is Tamás Vásáry, and the permanent first guest conductor is Gregory Vajda.