Violist Eniko Magyar is setting her sights on Britain. Toby Deller meets her

It’s a bright but chilly late winter’s day in Regent’s Park and, as we wrap up our interview, Eniko Magyar remarks: ‘It’s so warm, like spring!’ It turns out she’s recently returned from her snowy home of Hungary to London – her base since completing her studies at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in 2009. But what brought her here in the first place?

‘I graduated from the Franz Liszt Academy of Music [in Budapest],’ she says, ‘but I knew I wanted to see how musical education is abroad. I had a very good friend when I was younger, a great violinist – she was always an idol for me and she came to study at the Royal Academy. Then it happened that I came to London as a tourist. I came to visit the building and I picked up one of those brochures from the front desk. I came for an audition and I got a full scholarship for two years, which I was amazingly grateful for – it made it possible for me to come to study here.’

‘The viola’s character matched my personality much more than the violin. It is lyrical, there is more drama’

Even at that point, while a graduate of Hungary’s senior music academy, Magyar had only just committed herself fully to the viola. She started on the violin as a seven-year-old pupil at the music school in the country’s second city, Debrecen, and didn’t pick up the viola until the age of 16, following a 100-odd mile move to allow her to attend the conservatory in Szeged.

‘I took it on as a mandatory class – all violinists had to play the viola as well – and I immediately felt that I really loved the instrument,’ she recalls. ‘But for years after that, even going to the Franz Liszt Academy [at 18], I kept playing both. After graduating on the violin 
I started playing viola in a string quartet and then that was the point that I really discovered the instrument itself, and what different qualities and character it has. I really fell in love with the sound of it so I decided I would learn more’ – hence the move to RAM and her teacher, Martin Outram of the Maggini Quartet.

Evidently, London’s balmy climate was not the only attraction: ‘In Budapest we have a very strict teaching method, which can sometimes be frustrating for students. I enjoyed very much here that the positive feedback came first and then we started working on the problems. Martin was always very supportive and extremely helpful, and so encouraging. He really opened me up as a musician and made me believe in myself.’

This sense of awakening was also connected to her decision to settle definitively on the viola. ‘I felt the viola’s character matched my personality much more than the violin. It is lyrical, there is more drama – although I wouldn’t like to say my personality has a lot of drama! But definitely that part of the instrument touches me more deeply than the violin’s sound and character.’

Magyar is poised at an interesting point in her career. She has already released her first solo recording, an album of English viola music (including the – lyrical, yes, dramatic, yes – sonata by Arthur Bliss). A second record, comprising the Brahms sonatas and Magyar’s own transcriptions of Schumann songs, is on its way.

Solo engagements are building up, but she is happy to be versatile: ‘I’m very much enjoying that period in my life where I decide what I take on, mostly depending on the repertoire. Many times it’s also about working with certain people who I know are amazing musicians and I can learn a lot from. It’s almost never about, let’s say, the money or how important the concert is; it’s more important to enjoy being with great musicians and learning.’

Among her current collaborators is the London Sinfonietta. ‘I do different projects with them, most of the time replacing Paul Silverthorne, the principal viola,’ she tells me. ‘I find it’s nice to have a variety in my life – you work alone, you practise your repertoire, then it’s nice to do something completely different and have a look at today’s contemporary music life, which is very rich and developed in London.’ Not only has she replaced Silverthorne, but she has also partnered him for several performances of George Benjamin’s Viola, Viola, a piece the composer has described as being for ‘a huge multiple magic viola’ rather than the more prosaic ‘viola duo’, as it might usually be termed.

‘I find it’s nice to have a variety in my life – you work alone, you practise your repertoire, then it’s nice to do something completely different’

She is enthusiastic about the music of today. ‘Obviously I have my priorities, but I always find it very refreshing. [It means] I get back to my viola with an open mind and more energy. Every violist knows a huge part of our repertoire is contemporary music, so I cannot avoid playing it. I always try to build something contemporary into my recital programmes; I prefer playing something solo so I can really show all the possibilities of the instrument. There are some great solo pieces which allow me to do that.’

As we shake hands, I resist the temptation to joke if Magyar, whose surname literally translates as ‘Hungarian’, might be planning a recording of Britten and Françaix and ask, instead, if she hopes to do the Bartók concerto. No plans at the moment, she says, but she would very much like to. ‘There are many recordings,’ she exclaims, ‘but not by Hungarians!’

Eniko Magyar plays numerous UK dates this spring. For details, visit:

www.enikomagyar.com

This article first appeared in Muso issue 52 (April/May 2011)

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