“I cannot put into words just how grateful I am for the many beautiful moments Steinway has bestowed upon me while practicing and in concert.”

Zoltán Kocsis

Photo: Zoltan Kocsis performing Bartok's 'Piano Concerto No. 3' with the New York Philharmonic led by Lorin Maazel at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday night, October 9, 2003. (Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

Pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis (1952–2016) was one of Hungary’s most galvanizing musicians from the 1970s to his death in 2016. He was also renowned across Europe to the U.S. and Japan. His recordings of Bela Bartók’s complete works for solo piano, on eight discs for the Philips label, stand as a definitive treatment of the composer’s art. He also recorded Bartók’s three piano concertos with conductor Iván Fischer, with whom Kocsis co-founded the idealistic Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983. The two former schoolmates went their separate ways when Kocsis took the reins of the rival, state-supported Hungarian National Philharmonic, serving as its music director from 1997 until his passing. Playing the piano by the time he could toddle, Kocsis was soon celebrated as a child prodigy; by 1970, he had won the Hungarian Radio Beethoven Competition, following that with the Liszt Prize in 1973 and Kossuth Prize in 1978. Beyond Bartók — whose works he also conducted with idiomatic richness — Kocsis’s keyboard repertoire ranged from Bach, Schubert and Liszt to Rachmaninoff, Ravel and Debussy. As a concerto soloist, he performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as the top orchestras of Vienna, London, New York and Chicago. Kocsis made a spectacularly persuasive recording of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Sonata in its original version (before the composer revised it to suit Vladimir Horowitz). His solo recording of Debussy’s Images and other works won a Gramophone Award in 1990, and Kocsis shared a Gramophone Award with Barnabás Kelemen in 2013 for their recording of Bartók’s violin sonatas.

Hungary’s Ministry of Human Resources stated that the death of Kocsis, from cancer, was “an irreplaceable loss for Hungarian culture,” while his erstwhile ally Fischer called him “one of the rare geniuses.... His influence on his generation is immeasurable.” The same held true for later generations and beyond Eastern Europe, as Chinese piano star Yuja Wang called Kocsis “my idol.” In his book The Great Pianists, Harold Schonberg highlighted Kocsis among Eastern Europeans of his era, praising the pianist’s “extraordinary technique,” the “intelligence, spirit and temperament” of his interpretations and his “lovely, singing sound” at the instrument. And a New York Times critic, impressed by a 2001 recital, had this to say: “This Hungarian pianist has that rare ear for the phrase as a whole: the talent to see from the beginning of a line to its end and to exploit the tension points along the way.” In the West, Kocsis had a lower profile in later years than his former piano classmate András Schiff, who left Hungary early-on and kept making solo records as Kocsis began to concentrate on his orchestra. Mindful of his country’s “fantastic possibilities” as well as its “depressing challenges,” Kocsis remained rooted to his native Budapest, where he had successfully battled communist authorities as a young man. Not only an interpreter but also a composer and arranger (whose works included orchestral transcriptions of Debussy), Kocsis was a polymath who bristled at limitations set by critics or colleagues, audiences or officialdom. —Bradley Bambarger

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