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Bartòk – 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.


John Phillips



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