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S & H Prom Review

PROM 4: Beethoven, Brahms, Rakhmaninov; Stephen Hough (pf); Budapest Festival Orchestra; Iván Fischer (con), Royal Albert Hall, 21st July 2003 (AR)

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 woodwind.

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 seep through.

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.

Alex Russell


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