Musical Mischief With Dvorak
nytimes.com by CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM
Budapest Festival Orchestra Has Fun at Avery Fisher Hall
The Budapest Festival Orchestra was almost halfway into its performance of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 8 (Op. 72) on Monday evening when Gaspar Szente, one of its percussionists, ambled through the string section to the front of the stage. Sitting down on the stool that had been placed there for the next concerto’s solo cellist, he calmly reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a tiny brass cymbal. Another leisurely gesture brought forward a mallet. With his head cocked attentively, he waited for his entrance. Then he played, intermittently producing delicate, pealing notes that improbably became the music’s emotional focus.
Such unexpected playful touches are part of the pleasure of attending a Budapest Festival Orchestra concert under its founder and longtime conductor, Ivan Fischer. Mr. Szente’s solo turn was one of several surprises during two all-Dvorak concerts the orchestra performed on Sunday and Monday at Avery Fisher Hall. On Sunday afternoon, during one mocking phrase in the boisterous final movement of the Symphony No. 8, the string players erupted in rhythmic laughter. For encores at the end of both concerts, the women in the orchestra stood up to sing — beautifully — in limpid arrangements of two Moravian Duets, “Moznost” and “Hore.”
As for the core strengths of this extraordinary orchestra, they are no longer surprising. The sound Mr. Fischer has built up over three decades with this ensemble of passionate and devoted musicians is consistently glorious, with rich, chocolaty strings; warm woodwind; and authoritative but never overpowering brass. There is Old World elegance in the shape of every melody, and a certain noble restraint in large-scale works that allows individual moments of drama to explode all the more fiercely.
These qualities made for two very special performances of the familiar Eighth and Ninth symphonies. In the Eighth, both the first and last movement displayed the orchestra’s impressive firepower, with Mr. Fischer holding back for a fraction of a second before a climax, allowing the sound to detonate unencumbered. The dancing third movement held plenty of swagger and even a certain sentimental abandon in the generous portamenti played by the strings. The movement did not end so much as — in a sleight of hand — evaporate into nothing.
In the Ninth, the “New World” Symphony, Mr. Fischer drew a wide arc in the first movement. His slow, expressive hand movements were occasionally interspersed with a quick, fluttering gesture that seemed to indicate moments where the orchestra — not only the wind players — could draw breath together. In the spellbinding Largo, Jeremy Sassano played the pastoral English horn solo with exquisite phrasing and singing tone. A lean, muscular Scherzo and fiery final Allegro brought the symphony to an exciting close.
On Sunday the pianist Garrick Ohlsson performed the Piano Concerto in G minor, an early work of Dvorak’s deeply rooted in the German tradition. With crisp rhythm and meticulously calibrated voicing, he brought out a strong sense of motion and purpose in this unjustly overlooked work. The serene second movement opened with a meticulously shaped horn solo by Zoltan Szoke that set the scene for Mr. Ohlsson’s lyrical reverie. His encore was a wistful and tender reading of the Intermezzo No. 6 (Op. 116) by Brahms.
On Monday the German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott joined the orchestra in a soulful performance of the Cello Concerto that was particularly memorable for his sensitive playing and refined sound in the quiet passages. There was magic in the interplay between soloist and individual orchestra voices, and in Mr. Müller-Schott’s hushed, almost lifeless penultimate note that grew into the soaring, jubilant conclusion.