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Haydn, Liszt, Beethoven: Stephen Hough (piano), Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre 16.1.2011 (GD)


 Haydn, Symphony No. 92 in G 'Oxford'

 Liszt, Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat

 Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major Op. 68  'Pastoral'

This concert, sponsored by Shell International, celebrated both the Hungarian presidency of the EU Council, and the bicentenary of Liszt's birth. 

Fischer opened the concert with a crisp, rather swift rendition of Haydn's so-called 'Oxford' symphony. Period trumpets, and timpani made their full effect, with splendidly bucolic-sounding valveless horns. A few horn glitches in the trio of the 'Menuetto', if anything, added to the sense of a live, quasi-period, event. I could have done with a little more symphonic gravitas (in the style of the classic Rosbaud recording) in the first movement’s development counterpoint. But Fischer and his excellent orchestra ensured here, and throughout, excellent clarity and balance with divisi violins, and lucid clarity of woodwind detail, which came into its own in the concluding concertante sequence of the andante cantabile.  Haydn's fully developed inventiveness and freedom of rhythm were beautifully and pointedly realised in the last two movements with a resplendent G major bravura flourish in the work’s coda, Curiously, Fischer omitted the exposition repeats in both the first and last movements. Stephen Hough gave an almost fiercely virtuoso rendition of the Liszt concerto. Of course this approach is commensurate with what we know about Liszt's own performance practices. And Fischer provided excellent accompaniment (if that is the right term) in the arresting maestoso opening unison theme in D minor, and throughout the concerto. Although Hough delineated the second movement’s quasi-adagio line well, I would have welcomed more poise and reflection here. The concluding allegretto vivace and allegro animato were delivered with just the right degree of contrast and quasi-dramatic panache. As a suitably modest encore Hough played the touching Liszt miniature, Andantino.

Overall, Fischer conducted a beautifully fresh and lucid performance of the 'Pastoral' symphony.  Again, admirable balance and transparency of textures gave a compelling edge to the performance.  Most of the opening allegro made an enduring effect with appropriately sprung rhythms. At times I missed the integrated contrast and tension that Toscanini used to bring to the long crescendos in the development section. But I suppose comparisons of this sort, with this kind of modern, quasi-period, performance, are odious! But in the second movement andante molto mosso ('Scene by the Brook') I didn't really have the sense of what Tovey described as the 'enormous strength of someone who knows how to relax'. This was probably due to Fischer's rather unnecessary accenting of the second violin part in the triplet sequence during the graceful dance-like section towards the movement’s recapitulation. But, apart from this, Fischer achieved a convincing sense of flowing lyricism throughout the movement. The rustic-sounding woodwind came into their own in the 'Peasants Merry-making'. Although the highlighting of the flutes, in particular, didn't always come off the 'Storm' was well handled, although I missed the sheer dramatic effect it can have in its initial a flash of lightening! Also some unmarked timpani crescendos and decrescendos sounded arbitrarily imposed rather than imaginatively integrated. In the opening of the last movement, 'Shepherds Song', Fischer introduced the innovation of having the theme played initially on solo violin - quite beautifully tonight by the leader Violetta Eckhardt. I am not sure whether this is part of any tradition? It is certainly not in most editions of the score! But it could be argued that it is consistent with the eighteenth century practice of playing an initial symphonic theme on a solo instrument or in chamber style. Haydn is known to have deployed this (in string quartet form) in the opening of the second movement of his Symphony No. 93 in D, the main theme of which has a marked resemblance to Beethoven’s theme, which is also in D major! 


Tonight, Beethoven’s finale was, for the most part, joyously compelling, the full-toned tuttis sounding resplendent despite the limitations of the Festival Hall’s acoustics. Fischer’s introduction of a rallentando at the beginning of the coda, with its yodel figure on muted horns, and continuing into the coda came off tonight. I am not sure whether this, and the other idiosyncrasies mentioned above, would bear repeated hearings on a recording, such as has just been issued on CD.

Fischer and the orchestra concluded this Hungarian event with suitably spirited and lively performances of Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 21 in E minor (orchestrated by Dvorak) and Johann Strauss's Peasant Polka, replete with vocal contributions from the orchestra and plenty of rhythmic stamping from an enchanted audience. 

Geoff Diggines


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