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Every concert is a celebration. This short sentence is on the brochure of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Indeed, the BFO has been ranked one of the ten best orchestras in the world for quite some time, and their principal conductor Iván Fischer is also a worthy successor of great Hungarian conductors, such as Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, George Szell – to mention only the greatest names.

The most recent concert series of the orchestra in the Palace of Arts posed a real challenge to both the excellent orchestra and their conductor. The two pieces by Bartók, The Miraculous Mandarin and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle now, a hundred years after their birth, represent a daunting task for artists. Even if the musical language of Bartók is Fischer’s mother tongue. The Miraculous Manadarin is based on the short story by Menyhért (Melchior) Lengyel published in Nyugat, the leading literary journal of Hungary at the beginning of the 20th century. Bartók was captivated by the deep psychological opportunities in the text – don’t forget this was the era of Sigmund Freud – and he saw the musical opportunities in the gory grand guignol. Though the highly intellectual piece takes only twenty minutes, with its need for a tremendous orchestral machinery it is the most modern and one of the most powerful compositions of Bartók according to many music critics. The beautiful prostitute arouses desire in the rich Chinese mandarin, who cannot die until this burning desire is satisfied. He is suffocated, stabbed with a sword, but for him the only redemption is the fulfilment of his desire.

The quality of the performance can only be described in superlatives. The perfection of the glissandos of the brass section expressing brutality, the broken string passages depicting the undying passion, the whirling dance of seduction by the young girl and the chase embodying the paroxysm of senses are only comparable to the greatest. The wordless death rattle of the invisible chorus, the last sigh of the mandarin dying having satisfied his desire are the peaks of the musical rendering of the human psyche. This evening we had an exceptional musical experience thanks to the brilliant performance of the orchestra and its conductor, Iván Fischer. After the interval we continued the journey into the human soul listening to Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Bartók got married not long before he started to compose this piece, and he was profoundly interested in the man-woman relationship, the mysterious, strongly sensual and at the same time intellectual relationship that ties together the loving woman and the man wishing to dominate in this relationship. The one-act piece completed in 1911 was a real challenge for Bartók, who had never composed music for human voices before. Ultimately, his efforts resulted in a unique, extraordinary music language that was unprecedented in his time. We think it would not be a mistake to claim that Bluebeard is a distant relative of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

Judith, the woman in love, leaves her comfortable happiness and fiancé to follow the bizarre Bluebeard, who cast a spell on her, into his dark castle and demands that he should hand over the keys to all the seven rooms of the mysterious castle to her. The locked doors of the torture chamber, the treasury and the armoury are opened up for her one after the other, while we are taken on a splendid musical journey by maestro Fischer. The Festival Orchestra once again proved to be a magnificent instrument, with its grappling perfectionism, its flawless rendering of the extremely difficult parts and all the hidden, tiny beauties of the partiture. Béla Perencz with his elegant baritone and perfect knowledge of music follows in the footsteps of his great predecessors. His voice brilliantly opens up at the peak at “Now behold my spacious kingdom/Gaze ye down the dwindling vistas…” over the chords played by the orchestra with Baroque splendour.

In the performance of the mezzosoprano Andrea Szántó (Judith) we felt a bit of embarrassment and uncertainty. At some points she was incapable of “singing through” the huge orchestra – which is the eternal problem of female Wagner-singers – but in the second half of the opera she gradually got more and more confident. She sang beautifully to the music in the upsetting scene of the lake of tears, only to join the women of the past behind the seventh door with a resignation she interpreted excellently. The darkness falling on the castle, the fading, hollow drumbeats – heartbeats slowing down – provided a soul-stirring ending to the evening. Iván Fischer was visibly overwhelmed by the ovation of the audience. After the splendid concert, someone from the audience rightly said: governments, like the one we have now led by Orbán, might come and go with all their pathetic viciousness, but Iván Fischer and his orchestra will long sound the praises of magnificent music, Hungarian and universal, throughout the world