In 1983, conductor Iván
Fischer co-founded (with Zoltán Kocsis) the Budapest Festival
Orchestra, the first of this year’s Prom visitors. Its frequent appearances
at music festivals throughout the world has sealed its reputation as
a fine orchestra and the opening work of this concert, Beethoven’s The
Creatures of Prometheus – Overture showed why: this was a crisp
and buoyant performance, with Fischer taking the work at the
correct frantic pace.
The orchestral balance was perfectly
judged, with all members of this distinctive orchestra shining through.
Notable was the sound of the eight double basses which were placed at
the back of the platform, providing a firm foundation for the rest of
the orchestra. The BFO play with the sensitive ears of chamber players,
giving the orchestra a distinctly taut and dark, refined but rugged
paradoxa of sounds: unified but never homogenised.
However, the conducting of the
first movement of the Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor
was laboured and dragged, with Fischer lacking forward momentum, drama
and the necessary tension that this emotionally charged music requires.
The conductor’s stodgy conducting was mirrored by Stephen Hough’s heavy
handed and turgid playing.
Unexpectedly Hough’s playing took
on a tranquil sensitivity in the Adagio, floating his phrases
with a subtle refinement and delicacy, almost fragmenting the notes
yet never allowing the music to topple into anarchy. Fischer gave the
illusion of making the music sound very slow and distant due to the
subtle, delicate playing of the antiphonal violins and mellow, refined
Unfortunately, Hough resumed his
aggressive playing in the Rondo with the notes sounding excessively
loud and congested and the phrasing blurred. In the closing passages
the pianist made an arbitrarily elongated pause purely for effect. Fischer
was in far more sympathy with this movement, conducting it with a rhythmic
tautness and lilting swagger.
Just as Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
was considered primarily as a conductor, so Sergey Rakhmaninov (1873-1943)
was known principally as a prodigious virtuoso pianist, and both their
reputations as composers were somewhat marginalized in their lifetime.
It is interesting to speculate
why many great conductors (such as Toscanini, Cantelli, Walter, Furtwangler,
Klemperer, Monteux, and Celibidache) never recorded any of Rakhmaninov’s
three Symphonies. Perhaps one of the reasons why this music seems to
have been undervalued in comparison to that of his contemporaries is
its overt romanticism, which has unjustly led the works to being seen
as schmaltzy film music, with a certain vulgarity and sentimentality.
None of this was evident in Fischer’s subtle and refined interpretation
of Rakhmaninov Symphony No. 2 in E minor (1906-7) – a performance
which stripped away any rhetorical excesses and theatrical effects by,
if anything, understating the score.
While the Brahms was unevenly
conducted, after the interval Fischer had regained total control of
dynamics and tempi, leaning toward classical severity rather than overt
romanticism. The slow long introduction - Largo; Allegro moderato
- was wonderfully reserved and never dragged and the conductor
brought out the snarling dissonances in the horns, consequently making
the work sound far more sinister than usual. An exquisitely played oboe
solo introduces the first subject while a poignantly played clarinet
heralds the second, its short phrases wailing memorably.
The Allegro molto was conducted
with a laid-back yet sprightly lilt, coaxing the orchestra to play with
chamber-like intimacy and precision. The Adagio was sublime:
one felt an uncanny tension and hushed concentration from the audience
who seemed to be mesmerised by the sensitive playing of the strings
which often seemed suspended in time. Again the music never lingered
and it was Fischer’s sensitive reserve that permitted the lyricism to
This was a deeply moving experience,
with the score sounding newly-minted, and heard properly for the first
time. The memory trace of this movingly hypnotic experience hung like
a ghost into the Allegro vivace which sounded almost superfluous.
Fischer’s mastery of the orchestral balance and delicacy of phrasing
made this often grandiose sounding movement elegant and refined: in
the climactic moments every member of this superb orchestra could be
heard. The symphony’s resounding conclusion was hugely celebratory without
sounding merely bombastic.
The Promenaders showed genuine
enthusiasm for this majestic performance and kept calling the conductor
back, until he finally announced the encore as: "Johann Strauss
II’s Eljen a Magyar!" Fischer treated this light, easy-listening
party piece in the right carnival spirit, with the BFO giving their
patriotic all in this Austrian composer’s tribute to the Hungarian people,
rightly bringing the house down.