After spending the entire day snuggling under a blanket with a good mystery during Saturday's unseasonable snowfall, I had to make a concerted effort to venture out into the elements in order to get to Carnegie Hall that evening. Nothing less than the combined musical power of pianist András Schiff, conductor Iván Fischer, and the Budapest Festival Orchestra could have lured me out on such a night. As it turned out, my gamble paid off handsomely.
The program (part of a Perspectives series that Schiff is curating on Bartók and his legacy) began with two Bartók works, the lively, brief Hungarian Peasant Songs and then the lengthy, complicated Second Piano Concerto. For both, Fischer had arranged his Budapest musicians in an unusual manner: the orchestra wore its belly outward and its pelt inward, so to speak, with two rows of woodwinds and brass surrounding the conductor at the center of the semi-circle, so that they were seated in front of rather than behind the evenly divided strings. This made for a bright, clear sound that suited the Bartók songs beautifully–and since there were more than enough strings to hold their own, it didn’t in any way damage the balance. When Schiff entered the scene for the piano concerto, this seating seemed to make even more sense, for it gave his emphatic playing something solid–something that emphasized the piano’s percussive rather than string-like qualities–to stand up against. As the concerto modulated from its frenetic, overpowering opening to its more complex echoes and patterns, one was able to sense how fully Schiff understood this music. The pianist seemed to combine inspired madness of manner with utter sanity of control, much in the way the conductor did with hisinstrument, the orchestra–proving once again (if such proof were needed) that you can never have too many wild Hungarians onstage at once.
For the second half, which consisted of Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony, András Schiff sat in the audience (I could see him, right across the aisle from me, as he sat and listened attentively, occasionally rubbing his hands against each other to relax them from their prior exertions) and Fischer took over completely. For this performance, he moved the trumpets and French horns back to their usual position and left only a single row of woodwinds at the front. I have been steadily and passionately listening to this symphony since 2003, when I first heard Simon Rattle rehearse it and then conduct it with the Berlin Philharmonic; I probably play Rattle’s excellent recording at least once a month, at home. And yet it wasn’t until last Saturday night that I realized exactly how the lead oboe and the lead clarinet function in the music–how they alone start up each new theme, and then proceed to take over each other’s parts, sometimes twining together as a pair, sometimes enlisting their fellow woodwinds, sometimes leading the whole orchestra into a larger sound. It was Fischer’s brilliant seating arrangement that showed me this. (And it was equally brilliant of him to keep the horns at the back, so that their haunting, mournful sound could seem to come at us from a great distance.) Iván Fischer is that rare item, a choreographic showman who is also a great conductor–and what Saturday night proved to me, once again, is that both these aspects of his personality are essential to the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s consistently marvelous performances.
Wendy Lesser, ARTicles (blog of the National Arts Journalism Program)