classical.net by Marc Haegeman
Daniel Müller-Schott, cello
Stephen Hough, piano
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
Bruges, Concertgebouw, 22-23 May 2014
Whoever considers classical music concerts a dull affair should give the Budapest Festival Orchestra under their music director Iván Fischer a try. The Hungarians guarantee not only music-making of the highest order, they also present it in a surprise package full of spirit and fun. When they opened their small Dvořák festival in Bruges with the ravishing 8th Slavonic Dance from the Op. 72 set, nobody could have guessed who the man was, sitting somewhat awkwardly on the soloist podium to the left of the conductor. He was a member of the orchestra alright, but it was only after a couple of minutes, when he took a small bell out of his pocket, we realized he was the percussionist. Not without some theatricality he ticked it a dozen of times as if it was the greatest solo part ever. It was a funny touch that set the congenial tone for the rest of the evening.
The sonority of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, co-founded by Iván Fischer in 1983, is now deservedly famous and needs to be experienced live. The arrangement of the orchestra, with the string sections clearly separated in blocks, the 1st and 2nd violins facing each other, and the double basses lined up slightly higher in the rear center, creates a stunningly deep and wide, almost tangible stereophonic sound. The Budapest strings form an absolutely extraordinary team; lush, precise and ultra-flexible, the overall sound can become string-driven if it wasn’t balanced by some of the most characterful woodwinds one can hear. With such a quality ensemble it isn’t fair to point out an individual player, but mention should be made of the first flute of Gabriella Pivon, whose musicality and flawless tone was a constant source of delight in these concerts. The brass are perhaps less prominent than some, but they can be extremely powerful when solicited. Iván Fischer himself is a quiet sculptor of sound. A very cultivated man, Fischer, who surely carries in his genes this Central-European tradition that remembers how to evoke a lost paradise beyond the notes. His conducting reflects three decades of partnership with the Budapest Festival; reserved, at times seemingly nonchalant, yet it all makes the precision, intensity, and winning enthusiasm he obtains from this orchestra even more intriguing.
It’s hard to cover Dvořák’s oeuvre in just three concerts, but the two evenings (I couldn’t attend the opera Rusalka on the third day) pairing a concerto with a symphony and spiced with some smaller pieces taken from the sets of the Slavonic Dances and the less familiar Legends were an absolutely thrilling homage. Elegance, imagination and a disarming naturalness were its recurrent qualities.
Both concertos featured compelling soloists and benefitted from their perfect entente with conductor and orchestra. The German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott is only in his late thirties. He is a pupil of among others Heinrich Schiff and Steven Isserlis, and studied privately with Mstislav Rostropovich. His rendition of the Cello Concerto proved this prestigious artistic pedigree is a lot more than just a fancy line of names. Strong, ample but flexible, Müller-Schott effortlessly found a convincing balance between grandeur and intimacy, energy and melancholy, and steered away from predictable sugar-coated escapades. The color, transparency and rhythmic precision that Fischer coaxed from the orchestra (especially the woodwinds and the solo violin of orchestra leader Violetta Eckhardt in the last movement) complemented the beautiful timbre of Müller-Schott’s “Ex Shapiro” 1727 cello in quite an ideal way.
The performance of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto by the British pianist Stephen Hough (replacing Garrick Ohlsson) on the second day was nothing short of revelatory. While arguably not in the same league as the more or less contemporary Brahms or Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concertos, Hough nonetheless convinced us that the main reason why it’s so rarely heard in the concert-hall (or on disc) has more to do with its extreme difficulty rather than the composer’s alleged lack of inspiration. True, the Dvořák Concerto (played here in its original version) doesn’t boast a similar immediate appeal, yet Hough’s masterful legato and grip on the long arches in the outer movements – symphonically conceived and growing almost relentlessly in intensity – made for some formidable edge-of-seat stuff. The strong interaction between piano and orchestra added to the impact, yet nowhere more so than in the beautiful Andante sostenuto. Hough plans to record the Dvořák Piano Concerto soon. It should be a winner.
The grace, textural subtlety and vivacity which made Fischer’s Slavonic Dances and Legends such a delight were also a remarkable asset in his readings of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Without ignoring their individual character, Fischer gave both masterpieces an unforced flow, allowing Dvořák’s melodic invention full bloom and spontaneously capturing the changes of mood and color. The only exception was the finale of the Eighth which sounded curiously overwrought in its variations’ section. After a brilliantly performed opening trumpets fanfare in Smetana style, the cellos sang beautifully while (to his credit) Fischer toned down the horns in the raspy brass writing. But the tempi and dynamic contrasts of the variations were overly labored and sometimes brought the movement to a near standstill. The explosive final run of the coda more than redeemed this slight indiscretion in an otherwise magnificent reading.
It was a relief to hear a conductor who doesn’t consider the “New World Symphony” merely as a vehicle for orchestral bravura and showy effects. With a firm grasp on the architecture, an unerring sense of timing and elegant rubato, Fischer suggested a convincing middle way between expressivity and restraint, preferring to hold the big guns for the final pages, which this time seemed absolutely apt – and did blow off the roof in the process. Dvořák in one of his defining moments garners enough drama and excitement, without having to add to it. Tempi in all movements sounded natural with seamless transitions between themes. The warmth and tonal beauty of the orchestra guaranteed a reading full of poetry – regardless of whether the composer had the prairies in Iowa or the beloved countryside of Vysoká in mind. The woodwinds were again outstanding; the cor anglais in the Largo touchingly beautiful.
At the end of each concert Fischer had a final surprise in store. Acknowledging the thundering applause he announced in excellent Dutch (he has been working frequently in Amsterdam) he had another short Dvořák work, one of his Moravian Duets. It was played by the men in the orchestra, while to the amazement of all the women started singing in the most angelic of voices. The Budapest Festival is a unique orchestra indeed.