– Romanian Dances, The Wooden Prince, Beethoven – Piano Concerto
No. 5 (Emperor), Richard Goode (piano) Ivan Fischer
conducting The Budapest Festival Orchestra, Hall 1, The Sage,
Gateshead, 9.11.2005 (JP)
At last night's Sage concert we had a visit from perhaps the
world’s finest Bartòk orchestra, plus one of the finest
of Beethoven pianists of today. The orchestra was in Edinburgh
recently, and is again appearing on Friday and Saturday at
the Barbican in London. If the Gateshead performance was anything
to go by, London’s audience is in for a real treat.
Ivan Fischer founded the orchestra with
Zoltan Kocsis, some 20 or so years ago with the aim of providing
performances of the finest quality for its Hungarian audiences.
Fischer has been so successful that the orchestra is now feted
the world over, and most of its recordings have won awards.
Hungaroton, Philips and most recently Channel Records have
all benefited from these artists' work, and last night’s concert
will have done nothing to tarnish reputations. Unusually for
modern international ensembles, the success seems to be largely
as a result of hard work within a diversity of fields. The
players are all encouraged to play chamber music, and are
rehearsed by Fischer in sections, Strings, Brass, Woodwind
etc. before coming together as a complete group. The result
is perfect security throughout, allowing the conductor to
concentrate on the performance as a whole rather than worrying
about technicalities. The process is certainly worthwhile
and results in suberb musicianship.
The concert opened with the "Romanian Dances,"
an orchestration by Bartòk from
a suite of dances for solo piano. Unusually, the two solo
clarinets were seated by the conductor instead of in their
usual positions, which resulted in an unusual but very effective
instrumental balance. There was a delightful lilt to the playing,
much appreciated by all and the overall balance between the
various sections of the orchestra was also expertly managed.
The sound quality in Hall 1 at the Sage was delectable.
We were then treated to a somewhat muted performance of the
Beethoven "Emperor" Concerto No.5 for Piano and
Orchestra. Richard Goode, now in the middle of a Beethoven
Concerto cycle (two concerti at the Barbican on this visit)
was not quite on his best form, and the performance felt somewhat
earthbound. Somehow this wonderful concerto refused to get
off the ground and maybe the soloist might usefully stop playing
from the score in performance. The audience reception to his
reading was certainly not as positive as many that I have
heard at the Sage.
After the interval, while the orchestra was back up to full
strength, a few of the first-half's audience was absent, due
no doubt to some people's unfamiliarity with the Bartok ballet
even though it was actually scintillatingly played. “The Wooden
Prince” was completed in 1916, to a rather improbable story
by Bela Balazs, the librettist for "Bluebeard’s Castle."
The ballet concerns the developing love between a Prince and
Princess and its transition from her initial affection for
a wooden puppet, carved by the Prince himself, and adorned
with mantle and crown, plus a locket of his hair. As the story
unfolds, a third character, a fairy, described as “a tall
woman sheathed in a grey veil” guides the transfer of the
Princess's affection to the real Prince.
When the ballet was first performed, it was a considerable
success, and although it is not played frequently these days,
the music nevertheless deserves an occasional hearing. It
is scored for a huge orchestra, quadruple woodwind plus two
saxophones, four horns, four trumpets, two cornets, three
trombones, tuba, percussion including xylophone and glockenspiel,
celeste, two harps and strings. The strings are much divided,
often giving a glistening and ethereal effect to the sound.
A work like this suits the Sage admirably, and here the performance
was enhanced by a couple of large plasma screens used for
surtitles. Even though these gave the somewhat bemused audience
a basic idea of the plot as it developed, the applause at
the end of the work was restrained though probably more as
a result of unfamiliarity than because of the performance.
There is always some risk, I suppose, involved in playing
relatively rare repertoire, but the organisers could not have
made the ballet more acceptable than they did. Enthusiasm
was quickly restored however, since our very welcome visitors
had come prepared with two tuneful encores, Brahms' Hungarian
Dance No. 15, and a polka by Josef Strauss. Both were played
with such joyfulness and precision that in themselves, they
made sure that the orchestra would be welcome if asked back
for another concert. The expressions on the musicians' faces
showed that they too, had enjoyed the concert considerably.
Well done to the Sage then, for promoting such worthy visitors.
Sadly, with the exception of Opera North's concert performance
of "Salome" in February 2006, we shall have to wait
until May for the next visiting orchestral concert, when the
Kirov comes to Gateshead.