The healthy-sized audience that gathered at Kings Place yesterday for the opening night of the Hungarian Liszt festival (and Hungarian it was - I only heard two or three other people speaking English) arrived with high expectations of the brilliant young violinist Barnabas Kelemen and his duo partner Gergely Boganyi. But I'm not sure any of us anticipated the discovery that Elvis is alive, well and playing the violin. Kelemen strode on stage sporting the hair, the sideburns, the charisma and a slightly incongruous Chinese silk jacket; alongside him, Boganyi was long-legged, long-fingered and long-haired, clad in a shiny silver suit. They were quite a duo before they'd even begun.
This recital began literally where others end, plunging into the Bartok Romanian Dances with all the energy and earthy passion of musicians who have already warmed to their task and need no moment to test the water or coax in their audience. Instead, they just grabbed us. And there's no arguing with musicianship like this. Kelemen is a full-on virtuoso and makes no bones about it: his sound is huge, almost too big for KP, not invariably beautiful, but bursting with personality. Yet what struck me at every turn was the musical intelligence behind the charismatic showman: in the four Liszt pieces, he and Boganyi slid elegantly into that metaphysical soundscape between water and sky so characteristic of Liszt at his most spiritually removed, especially alive to the chilling and lonely visions of La Lugubre Gondola; the Romance Oubliee, too, was as delicate and elusive as anyone could hope.
Perhaps the biggest test of all was the Faure A major Sonata, which might seem an odd companion piece for the Hungaryfest, but bears traces of Liszt's influence via that of Saint-Saens, certainly in its fiendish piano part (I've played it rather a lot, struggling with the sensation I was doing the dog-paddle up an Olympic swimming pool). Boganyi made it sound all but effortless. I'm told that this admirable, clear-toned and sensitive pianist gave the complete solo works of Chopin last year at the Budapest Palace of Culture, in two days flat.
Mercifully lacking any English preconceptions that Faure should be pretty, floaty and over-refined, they really went for it. The work is pure passion, a wonderful, optimistic, sensual love-song for Marianne Viardot (Faure kept writing to her of "our sonata" during their brief engagement, and this was it). But being truly passionate doesn't mean bashing the hell out of something - quite the reverse - and it was the way Kelemen spun the melodies that impressed so much, shaping the drawn-out phrases with lines as long as Proustian sentences; and the variety of colours and shades of expression he is able to conjure, with varied vibrato and all-giving bow (plenty of flying horsehair). In the glitter of that nearly-an-optical-illusion scherzo, each pizzicato had a different shade of meaning. No repeated phrase was the same twice; no automatic pilot, thanks very much. Each moment lived, breathed and spoke. Faure's glorious elan shone in the sunshine, taking the sky and revelling in its breathtaking beauty.
As if that wasn't enough, Kelemen and Boganyi picked the Sarasate Zigeunerweisen by way of encore. First, Kelemen told us first about his famous Gypsy violinist grandfather, who died before Barnabas was born but has been captured on film (we've featured him before on JDCMB, but here he is again in case you missed it!). "There's one style we haven't played yet," said Kelemen, "the Gypsy style. I hope you all like Gypsy style..." Kelemen's grandpa would have been proud of the dash and devil-may-care daring with which Zigeunerweisen zoomed through Kings Place, some of it right on the edge of possibility in terms of speed. No safety net; no need for one.
Kelemen is one of very few violinists who can embody the ideal meeting of the Gypsy and Classical styles, understanding both from the inside and bringing out the best of both worlds. And not because of his "blood", but because of his musicianship. Though I do remember reading somewhere that Elvis had some Roma extraction too...
Catch him again on Saturday, playing Bartok's Violin Concerto No.1 at the RFH with...the LPO and Jurowski.