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@Chris Christodoulou

source: www.theartsdesk.com; Sebastian Scotney
Whole string sections with the ability to phrase cleverly and subtly as one

The first of this year’s two Proms by the Budapest Festival Orchestra had looked like a rather strange confection, on paper at least. With eleven scheduled contributions, and only two of them destined to make it into double figures, its timings had even given it a passing resemblance to a short but eventful cricket innings (there were also three unprogrammed extra items, but more of those later). The evening’s programme, which ranged through the centuries from Mozart and Schubert up to the 1930s and Kodály, by way of one piece by Dvořák and four from the Strauss family, showed off a remarkable orchestra, and the astonishing level of responsiveness which it is capable of giving to Iván Fischer, who not only co-founded it, but has also led it artistically through all the 31 years of its pre-eminence. Fischer’s concept for this Prom – as explained in an interview published before it – had been to broaden out the idea of the Vienna New Year’s Day Concert, to portray not just the suaveness and the sophisication of the aristocratic Austrians, but also to open the doors of the party to the musical styles of the broad variety of ethnic groupings of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as the gypsies, Moravians, and Hungarians.

If, on the strength of that, listeners had expected an evening of exuberance, a taste of Kaiserschmarrn perhaps, and “paprika above everything”, they will have been surprised, and maybe even disapppointed, because most of the best moments of this concert were not about swagger and bravura, but when Fischer and his players were seeking for – and invariably finding – beauty, balance and control. In fact, they located all of those right from the first piece on the programme. Brahms’ 14th Hungarian Dance, is anything but a foot-tapper. Played in Fischer’s own orchestral arrangement, its Andante con moto had a special and measured soulfulness about it.

Indeed, what takes the breath away with this orchestra is above all the sheer concentration and the class of its entire body of string players, and their ability, section by section, to phrase not just unanimously, but as cleverly and as subtly as a single player. To take just one example among hundreds, the opening, six-note, descending bass figure of the second movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony becomes, under their fingers, a tiny work of art in it own right. Schubert marks it pianissimo; this six-man section plays it as a controlled, precisely gradated diminuendo, a disappearance, a leave-taking. Particularly in the Schubert, the string players’ sense of allargandos which are not only felt but breathed completely together, and right through to the back desk, are what stay most powerfully in the mind.

The wind sections also play in a controlled rather than a flamboyant manner. That ethos of playing across, organum-like, was right there from the start too. Prior to Fischer’s arrival on stage the massed winds played a beautiful, palate-cleansing Bach chorale, led impeccably from the first oboe chair.

The two other unprogrammed extras also both produced poignant moments. As a first-half closer, Fischer led the orchestra in the 30 bars that Schubert completed in the full score of a B minor scherzo third movement for the “Unfinished” Symphony, and, quite rightly, asked for a silence to follow it. After all, one can never be reminded often enough quite what Schubert might have gone on to write, had he only lived a few years longer.

The orchestra was decidely on home territory in Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, which Fischer conducted, like most of the programme – but, curiously, not the closing sections of Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz – from memory. The evening’s single encore was beautiful and touching. “Možnost”, one of Dvorak’s quieter and calmer Moravian Duets, was sung by virtually all of the female members of the orchestra, accompanied by a reduced yet thoroughly supportive string section. The orchestra showed, one last time and in a different and unexpected way, that emotions, deeply experienced and shared through music, will invariably leave a far more lasting impression than mere display.

Photo: Chris Christodoulou