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After the excellent introduction by Péter Halász, who revealed that the Polovtsians were none other than fellow people of our Cumans, we listened to the Polovtsian Dances by Borodin at the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Russian evening in quite a different way. Although I did not hear any colouring typical of the Pannonian Basin in this deservedly popular opera scene, I had no complaints whatsoever about its performance, during which the first-class Czech Philharmonic Choir from Brno appeared unexpectedly in the rows of orchestra members.

Conducted by Iván Fischer, the orchestra played in a colourful style, and deployed a wide range of characters; the sensitive softness of the first sounds, then the melting cello pizzicatos were an early experience. The fact that the whole “Cuman” piece reminds us of the genuine Slavic colouring by Rimsky-Korsakov has to do with Borodin’s magnificent music.

Piano Concerto No. 3 by Prokofiev, which is played more and more frequently nowadays, came with a huge change in time and style. There were, however, other changes too: I attended the third concert, which the original soloist performing on the first two occasions cancelled, and the twenty-something Andrei Korobeinikov, already acclaimed worldwide, replaced him as an understudy with astonishing speed. Since the piece is even more difficult than one by Rachmaninoff – besides its impressive lyrical colours as well as rich atmosphere and Prokofiev’s distant irony, its spectacular virtuosity may be one of the reasons for its popularity – this situation must have been a special challenge for both the orchestra and the conductor. Well, the challenge was met, because the performance was absolutely compelling without any traces of convulsive efforts, wobble or unpolished play – no mean feat in this respect. But the point is, it did not lack musical experience either, thanks to the orchestra’s discipline and confidence, the fact that even great volumes were not distorted, the elementary momentum of the framing movements, and its atmosphere that was sarcastic in its gradual sentimentality and sentimental in its sarcasm. Korobeinikov came, saw and conquered: his play was extremely precise and controlled when required. With a monumental impact at times, it was fine and sensitive, as if he had been breathing together with Iván Fischer. While his hands darted incessantly on the keys, he showed no signs of losing intensity. I felt that his play was lacking something in one respect only: the sound was a little bit matt, and less dynamic than that of the orchestra; he does not have the ability Korolev had, namely that sounds do not have to be forced to shine; yet credit can be given to him for not trying to compensate by force.

The closing piece of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s swan song, Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”). Since I heard the unforgettable Symphony No. 4 at the Tchaikovsky marathon some years ago, I really look forward to performances of the composer’s symphonies delivered by the orchestra and Iván Fischer. The Fifth I have since heard was less memorable than the Fourth, but at this particular evening we witnessed an interpretation almost equal to the latter. It seemed as if the well-known, beautiful and overpowering musical moments were more grandiose and evocative than usual, starting from the heavy and slow introduction. The first great revelation carried me away, and the painful dissonance of the chords came to the surface in a beautiful way. Marvellous horn and clarinet solos were played, and after a genuinely titanic struggle the opening movement finished powerfully, performed with strict precision and in a crystal clear manner. In the second movement, joyful sounds were unusually evident and convincing, while in the third movement the taunting marcia gradually became more and more devilish before transforming into a “march to the scaffold”. The tragic closing movement, which is very personal and confessional at the same time, was made unique and authentic by the most subtle musical solutions: freely interpreted timings, the “screening” of harmonies with great sensitivity, and the sensual multitude of subdued, dark and sinister colours. 28 January – Béla Bartók National Concert Hall Arrangement: Budapest Festival Orchestra