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London vacation, part I

The Budapest Festival Orchestra's two Proms with their music director Iván Fischer were poles apart in tone, though both reminded us of this extraordinary ensemble's apparently limitless ability to take us by surprise.

First came an anniversary tribute to Mahler and Liszt that placed the latter’s Totentanz and Mephisto Waltz No 1 alongside Mahler’s First Symphony. Mephisto Waltz No 1, equating the erotic with the demonic, has rarely sounded quite so insistently sexual. Totentanz, with its clattering piano writing, rings changes on the Dies Irae in a mocking reminder of mortality. The soloist was Dejan Laziæ, a powerhouse performer whose playing combines strength with beauty. He knows how to take us by surprise, too. As an encore, he gave us Giovanni Dettori’s Lady Gaga Fugue – Bad Romance in the style of Bach.

Fischer, meanwhile, has become a major Mahler interpreter of late. He treated the Symphony as a young man’s work that explores new musical landscapes, filled with intimations of dread yet approached with amazement. The audience roared for more. “We have a whole concert of encores at 10 o’clock,” Fischer announced. So many stayed for the late night audience choice show.

The programme was decided by raffle. You were handed your ticket as you went in, and if your number was pulled from the bell of one of the BFO’s tubas, you could suggest something from the list of 285 items in your programme. These were then put, three by three, to public vote after which the winning pieces were played at sight.

Most people wanted to hear the orchestra in their national repertoire, so we were treated to well nigh perfect performances of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Kodály’s Dances of Galánta. There was also an authentic Viennese account of Josef Strauss’s Sphärenklänge, and the fastest and most exciting performance of Glinka’s overture to Russlan and Ludmilla I’ve heard. Two great concerts; one sensational evening.

Tim Ashley, The Guardian