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Bartok and Beethoven: Richard Goode (piano), Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer (conductor), Barbican Hall, 11.11.2005 (GD)


Ivan Fischer's Budapest Festival Orchestra (founded by him in 1983) has a distinct Eastern European sound texture; the strings sound more grainy; the woodwind, although not raucous, can stand out in tutti passages giving a less homogenized timbre than Western orchestras; also the brass sound more raw than their well-behaved Western counterparts. All this is, of course, ideal for Bartok, a composer very close to the everyday, the popular...bear dances, swineheard's dances, getting a 'Bit Drunk', all things Bartok knew in his native Hungary. All these characterizations are alluded to in the Hungarian Sketches which he orchestrated from piano pieces. 


The first, 'Evening in the Village', was contoured with some evocative woodwind playing. Fischer all the way through is very sensitive to the lilting rubato which Bartrok indicates (incidentally Bartok’s own playing of such pieces on the piano is extreme, to our ears, in terms of rubato.) Although, as indicated, the orchestral sound is different, it is also extremely subtle, especially in terms of dynamics which Fischer articulates as well as a master like Reiner.


The concluding Swineheards’ Dance has the works only full ff tutti with woodwind wildly cutting through the full orchestra in tutti mode. It was a pity that this thrilling passage was compromised by the rather cavernous Barbican Hall acoustic.


After this wonderful opening I was keenly anticipating Richard Goode in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. His complete recordings of the Beethoven sonatas is arguably the best modern buy. Goode did not disappoint going from strength to strength in the B major excursions of the superb development section of the first movement thematically linked to the cadenza, also the second movement cadenza, important points which Goode made us aware of without any kind of underlining.


Initially Fischer and the orchestra sounded a tad tentative, accompanying but not really in dialogue with Goode. Also throughout this movement there was a lack of rhythmic thrust essential to Beethoven. Things picked up in the haunting Andante con moto. Fischer emphasized the con moto with a rugged sharp thrust to the recitative full string chords. Here the orchestra was in total accord and contrast to Goode’s wonderfully subtle Orphic pianistic responses. His transition into the movements incredibly affecting cadenza was a model of pianistic structural awareness where Beethoven has magically metamorphosised the initial E minor tonal structure into an array of hauntingly distant tonalities. The Rondo vivace was rhythmically sharp with the G major, C major juxtapositions skilfully managed. The important timpani part was for once absolutely clear. Overall a fine performance with Goode in especially excellent form.


I am anxious to hear the recently discovered Beethoven Autograph of his two piano arrangement of the Grosse Fugue from the great String Quartet Op 130. Apparently the Autograph is full of the composers notes on performance technique - a fascinating glimpse into this unique musical mind. Fischer opted for the full string arrangement made by Weingartner. Opinions vary on this, some insisting that it is a kind of heresy to listen or perform anything other than the quartet version. Fortunately we know that Beethoven, for one, was not so narrow minded. Like The Art of Fugue this unique music transcends such issues. It has an epic quality which lends itself to a larger sound. This was an extremely well played performance, Fischer rightly dividing first and second violins to capture the myriad antiphonal effects. The sudden rallentando Fischer adopts for the coda is not indicated by Beethoven but somehow it made its climatic point. But ultimately I missed the gravitas and panglossian drive Klemperer used to bring to the work with the Philharmonia Orchestra.


Both conductor and orchestra came into their element in Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, surely one of a handful of defining 20th Century works. Fischer made many interpretive points but it never sounded too interpreted and Bartok leaves considerable latitude for interpretation - not over-interpretation. The opening 'misterioso' ppp sounded just that without imposing an exaggerated ppp to make a virtuosic point. The wonderful second movement 'night music' was superbly contoured with the complex percussion parts (including the celeste and percussive string textures) were especially notable; the timpanist managed his eerie glissandi with consummate skill interacting with the enigmatically repeated high note on the xylophone. The Allegro molto finale reminded me that this masterpiece is not just about formal perfection and modernist effects (as some Western accounts emphasize) but is imbued with a lyricism and a return to folk dance rhythms, a cultural genre going back to ancient times where, for Bartok, music emanated.


For an encore Fischer and the orchestra gave us Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No, 14 played with idiomatic charm and greeted with warm applause from a near packed house.


Geoff Diggines




Further listening:

Bela Bartok: Hungarian Sketches; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, Concerrto for Orchestra; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Conductor, Fritz Reiner (conductor): RCA BMG 09026 61504 2.


Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58; Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op.15; Christoph Eschenbach (Piano); Nikita Magaloff (Piano); NDR Symphony Orchestra, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (Conductor): EMI: 0724347673627.


Ludwig van Beethoven: Grosse Fugue in B major, Op.133; Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’: Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer (conductor): EMI: CD: 66793.

Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Concerto for Orchestra; RIAS-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Ferenc Fricsay (conductor): Deutsche Grammophon: 447443-2.

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