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A Budapesti Fesztiválzenekar a Festival Hallban

The Budapest Festival Orchestra has played in Edinburgh before to great critical acclaim. Consequently, it was only to be expected that their concert last Sunday would be well attended, despite a late change of soloist. In fact, it was a virtual sell-out and we were not disappointed.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Bartók was keenly interested in folk music, and this was reflected in the piece which opened the programme: his Hungarian Peasant Songs, composed in 1933 for small orchestra. The two movements are drawn from an earlier piano work, 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs, which he had written during the First World War. The opening Ballade consists of a theme (presented initially by the strings) and variations in which other sections of the orchestra develop the material. The second movement is a sequence of eight peasant dances. From their first entry, the strings made a firm, full sound that set the tone for the rest of the concert. The melodies may be relatively simple, but each section contributed with poise. There was some velvety cor anglais playing and the brass sounded bold but not raucous. A convincing, foot-tapping energy characterised the second movement which, with its frequent changes of tempo, could easily have become scrappy. Iván Fischer, who co-founded the orchestra in 1983, used his baton like a laser-pointer and every corner was negotiated with precision. Clearly, his players know him well and genuine rapport exists between conductor and musicians.

There is some debate over the numbering of the Violin Concerto no. 1, as the composer never published it in his lifetime. Stefi Geyer, the young violinist who had inspired the work and with whom Bartók was in love, kept her copy of the score even though the relationship was short-lived. This manuscript was discovered among some papers after her death and the work was given its first performance in 1958. We know the Andante better as the first of the Two Portraits, Op. 5. The young Hungarian violinist Barnabás Kelemen was the soloist and from the moment he appeared on stage until the final notes of his second encore, we were treated to a performance of virtuosic chutzpah and spectacular violin playing. The soft but lush timbre of the soloist’s opening bars floated above the restrained accompaniment provided by the orchestral front desks. Even when more of the orchestra joined in, the soloist was never overwhelmed. He soared without being shrill and the orchestra kept quiet when it mattered. The Allegro giocoso captured the playfulness that was meant to depict the spirit of the young Stefi and also afforded Kelemen the chance to draw rich sounds from his lower strings. The audience warmed to his theatricality and the Bach and Paganini encores were welcome bonuses.

The main work of the evening, occupying the whole of the second half, was Mahler’s Symphony no. 5. Given that in 1901 Mahler had been severely unwell – almost at death’s door – and that by 1902 he had married and had his first daughter, it is understandable that the work is an emotional rollercoaster. It is not programme music, however, but a symphony which is by turns highly dramatic, joyous, passionate and tender. The performance we heard was all of these things. The trumpets managed to crescendo right the way through their opening fanfare, with the rest of the orchestra (now brought up to full strength) coming in like the crack of doom with their first entry. The drama and energy levels were sustained in the second movement, helped to a large degree by the layout on stage. All eight double basses were in a single line and elevated behind the centre of the orchestra. Their pizzicato and resonant contribution was unmistakable, as well as a great demonstration of unison playing. In the Scherzo, the Principal Horn actually came forward to stand next to the conductor, communicating in bell-like tones with the other elements of the orchestra, as well as the audience.

Fischer took the famous fourth movement, marked Adagietto, as slowly as he dared. It worked triumphantly because the entire string section produced the most glorious sound. Many of the audience were visibly moved; after the final bars, there was perfect and total silence. Excitement was restored for the finale. If such a thing as tightly controlled exuberance exists, this was it. The sound quality was warm and vibrant and the textures clear. There are other interpretations of this work, but Fischer’s was entirely coherent and as satisfying emotionally as it was musically.

Submitted by Jeremy Morris