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Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor), The Anvil, Basingstoke, 23.4.2013 (NB) (seenandheard-international.com)

Dohnányi: Symphonic Minutes Op.36
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1 in C Op.15
Brahms: Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98

As the season of International Concerts in the superb Anvil Concert Hall draws towards its close a couple of things are becoming very apparent; the standard of orchestral playing is at a phenomenally high standard with excellence of execution now the norm not the exception. Yet attendances remain disappointingly mediocre – only one concert coming anywhere close to selling out. Last night’s performance by the Budapest Festival Orchestra was a case in point. In 2008 this young orchestra – founded just thirty years ago by this concert’s conductor Iván Fischer – was voted by International critics as one of the World’s top ten. By definition, you do not often have the opportunity outside of the major cities to hear playing at that level so the number of empty seats is as depressing as it is baffling.

And what a sensational exhibition of orchestral playing people missed. The concert opened with an ideal orchestral showpiece. The Symphonic Minutes by Hungarian composer Ernö Dohnányi is a gem. Originally written to be a ballet score, it crams five very different movements into its fifteen minute duration. Premiered in 1934 it proves to be the very friendly face of 20th Century Music combining Hungarian folk idiom with exciting orchestration and pulsating rhythms. I cannot imagine hearing it better played than here. From the opening bars the character of the orchestra was immediately clear – compellingly alert and articulate but with remarkable richness.

In part the layout contributed to this very special sound. As with the Czech Philharmonic the double bass section was ranged across the back of the platform. But interestingly the bulk of the lower tone of the orchestra came more from the cellos sitting in the preferred continental position next to the first violins on the left hand side of the platform. Also, unusually for a concert hall seating the back desks of the upper strings sat on wooden risers. This is much more common in opera and ballet pits but unusual elsewhere. Apart from easing sight-lines for those players the boxes act as resonating chambers and help create the wall of string tone for which Hungarian orchestras in particular are justly famed.

But the woodwind proved themselves to be an intensely expressive and impressive team too. In the second and fourth movements; Rapsodia and Tema con variazione respectively the cor anglais and clarinet produced playing of genuine world class. Indeed I would go as far as saying the former played by Jeremy Sassano [this piece his only contribution to the evening] was the most meltingly beautiful playing on that instrument I have ever heard. Likewise, clarinettist, Ákos Ács played with an arabesquing freedom and fantasy of breathtaking brilliance. In this all were helped by the near-nonchalant but palpably engaged conducting of Iván Fischer. Much of the time he all but stops conducting ‘time’ preferring to mark the key phrases or accentuations. This is very much collaborative music-making born of years of familiarity and mutual respect. He encourages the orchestra to push the boundaries of their playing dynamically and expressively – pushing the Rapsodia to an impassioned and ecstatic climax. The work’s central movement is a burly Scherzo with the feel of a lop-sided folk dance played here with all the good humour it required. Time and again the strings produced playing of a cinematic lushness most other orchestras can but dream of achieving. This whole work is steeped in Hungarian folklore – nowhere more so than in the closing moto perpetuo marked Rondo. What a joy to see a group of players revelling in just how good they are and taking pleasure in their mutual skill. This was music-making with a smile and drew warmly appreciative applause form the audience.

Just when the series planners saw their grand designs coming together something went wrong. This concert should have seen the culmination of the two on-going threads; international orchestras and the chance to hear all five Beethoven Piano Concertos as a concentrated group. Imogen Cooper was due to play No.2 to complete the cycle, but for no reason the audience were told she had substituted No.1. In other circumstances this would have been less of an issue but in fact No.1 had been performed – remarkably so – barely two weeks previously. Conversely, it proved a fascinating exercise in compare and contrast between the classically-inclined Cooper and the interventionist Katia Buniatishvilli. Fischer clearly aligned himself with Cooper’s approach before a note was played. Perhaps influenced by his elder brother, Ádám Fischer, as well as reducing the string strength – a normal practice – Fischer had the trumpets and horns play on natural instruments and the timpanist use ‘authentic’ drums. Fischer has very clear and definite interpretative ideas – something that became especially clear in the Brahms – but while these brass instruments did change the overall sound of the orchestra’s tutti sonority it does smack to me of period tokenism. If the brass are authentic, why not the wind and strings? Yes, on a couple of occasions in the performance the strings did pull back on their vibrato for expressive effect but the wind played with much the same – glorious – richness and intensity that they had both before and after the concerto.

Cooper’s playing could not have been more different to the performance earlier in the month. Yet it proved, as one might expect from a player of this standing, to be wholly impressive and full of beauty and carefully sculpted detail. From the outset textures and tempi were flowing, fluent and light. The second subject felt positively reticent but this chimed with Copper’s initial entry with playing that was clean and unmannered. Throughout the Budapest players’ accompaniment was a model of controlled vibrancy. Cooper chose to play one of the more extended cadenzas which she shared – in the best tradition of live performance – with an obligato cougher, all credit to Cooper for maintaining the atmosphere – it distracted me for certain.

The sense of chamber music collaboration extended into the slow movement disarming simplicity by Cooper. I loved the rich bed of string-tone the orchestra provided the solo part with but again there was a little nagging question of style with Cooper’s classical restraint juxtaposed against such a near-romantic accompaniment. But then all criticism was disarmed when Ács’ clarinet cantilenas wove such a spell of aching beauty that all one could do was sit and be utterly seduced. The finale of this concerto is noted for its ‘Hungarian’ character so no surprise that Fischer should so gleefully point the sharply off-beat accents and provide an accompaniment fizzing with barely contained energy. The essential good humour of this Rondo was clearly apparent and after a brief pause for reflection and the brief cadenza the work ended in a mood of celebratory good cheer.

Cooper is widely respected as a collaborative musician and her delight in the quality of the music-making around her on the stage was apparent. She prefaced her encore – the Schubert Hungarian Melody – with the comment that this was a small tribute to the wonderful orchestra. This proved to be a quite beautiful miniature and a performance to reinforce Cooper’s reputation as one of the great Schubert interpreters.

With nearly thirty years of working together it is no surprise that the Budapest players are alive to Fischer’s every nuance and quirk. My impression is of a musician who likes to challenge convention and to reinvent works in performance albeit within a carefully rehearsed and structured framework. This freedom within an overall conception can be very liberating for players. In the performance of Brahms’ 4th Symphony after the interval this demonstrated itself in several woodwind solos of extraordinary beauty, individuality and sheer skill. Principle flautist Gabriella Pivon was rightly singled out by Fischer for an exceptional performance of the flute variation in the last movement’s great passacaglia. But I jump ahead, Fischer conducted the Symphony from memory and again he saw his role as pointing phrasing and ensuring long sustained lines. One characteristic in this interpretation became instantly apparent – a refusal to be rushed. This must be one of the steadiest most measured versions of this work I have heard. Fortunately in the instrument that is the Budapest Festival Orchestra Fischer had players with both the technique and the will to follow his vision.

I must admit that for all the sheer beauty and power of the sound too often I felt the inner pulse of the music slowed to near stasis. Unlike some conductors Fischer does not perceive this work as having a basic set of interelated tempi. He is open to a more expressive rubato-led approach which allows spurts of adrenalin as in the drive to the close of the movement, but the abiding impression is of something more rhapsodic and reflective than one usually encounters. The second movement was again ripely monumental with beautifully stately wind lines projected over remarkably resonant string pizzicati. They were not loud as such but had a weight and presence that belied their nominal dynamic. It was quite a surprise to realise the triangle player had been secreted in the strings between the cellos and violas. Quite why Brahms felt the need to score a part just there and then I’ve never really understood. Again the strings were a solid wall of focused sound. Fischer enjoyed pulling the tempo right back to allow those sections to lilt with a near-Viennese grace.

The finale of this symphony is arguably Brahms’ single greatest symphonic achievement; 30 seamless variations over a Bach-derived Chorale theme. Fischer’s broad tempi gave the music a near Brucknerian grandeur – again only possible because the calibre of the playing allowed lines to be sustained and not lost. The previously mentioned flute variation gained an extraordinary pathos which led to a heart-rendingly beautiful dialogue between the clarinet and oboe [another superlative principle - Kai Frömbergen] which in turn handed onto the trombone choir and low wind with the simple statement of the main chorale which ushers in the final few pages of the work. Curiously liner note writer Terry Barfoot characterises this closing section as “truly tragic” – a thought that had never occurred to me – minor key and possibly stern but strong and resolute not tragic. Certainly controlled power was the key to Fischer vision with him urging the players to ever more energy without ever descending into crudity.

Interestingly, Fischer has one little performance preference which he used several times in this concert. He does not like final chords to have any kind of ‘bump’. Instead, at the very last moment the orchestra comes away from the chord – its a very distinctive effect. I have nothing but praise for the total unanimity and individuality of this deeply personal near idiosyncratic version of this great work. How refreshing to hear a wholly original take on this most standard of works! I must admit that I was not completely convinced – too much muscularity and kinetic energy was traded off in the pursuit of a kind of epic majesty but as a vehicle for this magnificent orchestra it was hard not to be swept away with the vision.

As an encore we were offered the rather pensive 11th Hungarian Dance by Brahms. These players have this music in their bones – every nuance intuitively understood – a lovely duet from the front desk violins a special highlight. A privilege to hear music making at this exalted level.

Nick Barnard