Concert Review: Unbowed But Undefeated
super-conductor.blogspot.hu by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Budapest Festival Orchestra plays Dvořák
When the Budapest Festival Orchestra arrived in at Newark Airport, they received an unwelcome surprise. The orchestra’s violinists had their bows (which were shipped separately to J.F.K.) seized by U.S. Customs at the Kennedy Airport due to suspicion that these vintage implements might contain ivory. On Monday night, with substitute bows (loaned by generous local string players) in hand, this Hungarian orchestra presented the second of two concerts focusing entirely on the music of Antonín Dvořák.
Happily, the run-in with American officialdom did not appear to affect the playing abilities of this ensemble, who have a reputation for quality music and showmanship under the baton of music director Iván Fischer. That showmanship was present in the very first piece: the Symphonic Dance No. 8 As the orchestra played the charming, folksy melody, percussionist Gáspár Szente moved forward to the front of the stage, playing a little chime with the solemnity of a concerto soloist. When the piece finished, he solemnly shook hands with Mr. Fischer, leaving the stage with all the dignity of a much more famous musician.
For the Cello Concerto, Mr. Szente’s place was taken by cellist Daniel Müller-Schott. Conductor and soloist took a leisurely approahc to this work, which casts the solo player in the central role in what is essentially a musical novel. Mr. Müller-Schott played his solo part with sweetness and great beauty of tone, supported by the Budapest players. The only drawback was an unusual orchestral seating arrangement that put the basses on risers at the rear of the stage, which muddied the sound of the cello when playing against the full orchestra.
The central slow movement allowed this talented young soloist to display his lyrical side, with singing tone against the orchestration in a long, sorrowful lament. The final movement was again taken at a slower tempo than usual, allowing Mr. Fischer and Mr. Müller-Schot to explore the depths of this remarkable score. The cellist responded to the audience’s enthusiastic reception with an elegant encore, a slow reading of Maurice Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera.
At the start of the concert’s second half, the Legend No. 4 was a table-setter, preparing listeners for the sumptuous meal that was yet to come. The No. 4 explore brief folk myths in a thoroughly Romantic style, with the players moving from a majestic opening phrase to a thoroughly Viennese-sounding waltz. But it was just an amuse-bouche, clearing the palate for the sumptuous meal yet to come.
The Ninth, or “New World” Symphony is the composer’s last work in that genre, a composition that now only appears rarely on concert programs after decades of over-exposure. Here, the composer fused traditional American hymns with the Beethovenian symphonic tradition, with successful results that have made this his most popular symphony.. Each movement is written around a central idée-fixe, a surging upward theme that serves to bind the entire work together
The orchestra exploded into the surging first movement, offering a cleanly played and detailed account of the Allegro, which allowed motivic ideas (including a quote of the “Dresden Amen” to bubble to the surface. The famous Largo with its plaintive melody for English horn can descend into cliché in the wrong hands. Under Mr. Fischer, this poem of loss and isolation was poignant, with a very slow tempo and a transparent and carefully disciplined string section allowing listeners meditate on the mournful tune. The English horn solo yielded to a surge of kinetic dance energy, a bustling central section that rose to a thunderous, balanced climax before the return of the English horn solo.
Mr. Fischer’s performance of the third movement Scherzo recalled the dance movement of that composer’s Ninth, with cheerful, raucous rhythms and timpani taps. The giant, striding central theme of the finale (played on horns and trombones) battled against ideas from the other movements in reverse chronological order, bringing all the musical ideas together and transmuting them into the symphony’s stirring climax. In a concert full of surprises, Mr. Fischer had one more: “Hoře”, from the composer’s Moravian Duets. This sad and delicate love song was sung by the women of the BFO who stood, scores in hands as the male string players accompanied them. It was a unique way to end the evening.