Budapest (MTI) – Celebrated Hungarian pianist, conductor and composer Zoltán Kocsis has died at the age of 64 after a long illness, spokeswoman for the National Philharmonic Julia Bukta told MTI on Sunday.
Kocsis was catapulted into the limelight after winning the Hungarian Radio Beethoven Competition in 1970. He won the Liszt Prize in 1973 and the Kossuth Prize in 1978 and again in 2005. He won Hungary’s Corvin Chain award in 2012.
With conductor Iván Fischer, Kocsis co-founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983, he later became musical director of the Hungarian National Philharmonic.
“Zoltán Kocsis was a musical giant, one of the rare geniuses. His impact on his whole generation is unfathomable,” Kossuth-prize winning Iván Fischer said on his Facebook page on Sunday. “I was deeply shocked and saddened to hear the news of his death. On behalf of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and myself I bid farewell to my colleague, co-founder, partner in many-many musical collaborations and unforgettable musician icon. May he rest in peace.”
The National Philharmonic said in a statement that they were “deeply saddened to report that Zoltán Kocsis died this afternoon after a long illness which he bore with great dignity. The vacuum he has left after his death is immeasurable,” the orchestra’s management said in a statement. He had recently cancelled concerts both abroad and at home.
Kocsis was born in Budapest where he started his musical studies at the age of five. He studied piano and composition at the Béla Bartók Conservatory and he was admitted to the Franz Liszt Academy of Music at the age of 16, studying with Pál Kadosa, Ferenc Rados and György Kurtág.
He had performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Philharmonia of London, and the Vienna Philharmonic, among other great orchestras.
In 1976, musician and filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon, known for his documentary profilers of luminaries such as Sviatoslav Richter and David Oistrach, made a film about Kocsis and his peer Dezső Ránki. The film shows a young Kocsis astonishing Monsaingeon with his ability to recall from memory entire pieces, including Wagner operas, at the piano.
Richter often performed duos with Kocsis, and it was said that Richter highly prized the young pianist’s interpretative imagination.
Before the Takács Quartet recorded the Bartók string quartets for the first time, they turned to Kocsis for his opinion. Gábor Takacs-Nagy, the quartet’s leader at the time, recalled how he had been able to spot small mistakes in their performance and recall metronome markings without even referring to the score.
Kocsis was also famous for his masterful orchestrations of seminal piano works, especially those of his favourite composers Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninov, not to mention Bartok. He also revelled in improvising and composing reductions of orchestral scores. He was one of the founders of the experimental New Music Studio. He composed for the Ensemble Modern and their joint performances gained worldwide fame.
He was awarded with the life achievement award at the Cannes Midem festival in 2004 and presented with a high French state award shortly after.
His recording of Bartók’s Out of Doors was included in a compilation by Phillips of the hundred greatest piano recordings of all time. His work with Ivan Fischer and the Festival Orchestra won the Edison prize.
Kocsis was also a devoted teacher and accompanist. He accompanied young Hungarian violinist Barnabás Kelemen in Bartók’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano, the recording of which won them a prestigious Gramaphone Award in 2013. He also picked up a Gramaphone gong for his recording of Debussy’s piano works in 1990.
Kocsis’s milestone recordings of Bartók’s complete works both as a conductor and pianist also won accolades the world over.
Kocsis was known for his charity work as a long-standing supporter of the International Children’s Safety Service; he gave concerts every year for the organisation, and donated the proceeds to its cause. He was given the key to the city of Budapest in 2014.
Kocsis believed that “performers must strive to give the audience the experience in the moment as earnestly and with as much credibility as possible when they encounter a piece for the first time, and then again and again, with each future encounter.” He said that “words had lost their importance and one can only show an example by deed, so that a tiny adjustment should be made to the world as far as our strength and talent allows.”
He is survived by his four children, among them pianist Krisztián Kocsis, and his second wife, pianist Erika Tóth.