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This was my best Proms evening since I do not know when … well actually it was this July and William Tell. What made it so special was that in so many ways Iván Fischer and his excellent Budapest Festival Orchestra put Fun (yes with the capital ‘F’) back into classical music. That Fischer is a great conductor with of an equally accomplished orchestra had clearly filtered through to the Proms audience as the Royal Albert Hall was as full for the first – and more serious – of the two Proms as it had been for Dudamel earlier this season. Sadly their numbers dwindled to about 1000 or so (at a guess) for the late-night ‘Audience Choice’ Prom – was this a case of the Proms planners not having the courage to try this for a whole evening? In the end it was a magical time and well deserving of a (televised?) matinee repeat before too long.

Liszt and Budapest are almost inseparable. So are Fischer and Mahler, as well as Fischer and Liszt it seems, because Liszt was the piano teacher of the conductor’s grandmother. When I was recently in Budapest in the recreation there of the composer’s rooms I realised how little of his music I knew and on the evidence of the two works in the first half of the early Prom I do not seem to have missed much. That will just be my reaction of course to the Mephisto Waltz No.1 and especially, Totentanz two of his works inspired by Liszt’s lifelong fascination with the devil and death; both seemed to have an air of self-aggrandisement about them. Despite the wonderful playing of the always reliable Budapest Festival Orchestra, the former reminded me of a Shakespeare quote ‘tedious and brief’ and, however consummate was Dejan Laziæ’s virtuosity in getting to grips with the fistful of notes Liszt asks of him in his virtually atonal Totentanz, I was reminded of another quote, this time from the incomparable Eric Morecambe, ‘All the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order’. Laziæ did absolutely nothing wrong as far as I could hear but that’s what it sounded like for me. So I guess if I am anything, I may not be a Lisztian. Far better was his Fugue encore – an exploration by Giovanni Dettori of baroque counterpoint inspired by Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ – now I definitely would have liked to hear more like that.

Sandwiched between the Liszt works was Blumine, the ‘lost movement’ from Mahler’s First Symphony. He began his First Symphony in 1884, and since, for me, most of his compositions are highly biographical it is not surprising that this was at the time of his, probably unfulfilled, love affairs with the singers, Johanna Richter or Marion von Weber … or both. In Jean Paul’s novel Titan – another inspiration for the First Symphony – the young romantic hero is seeking the love of his life. The Symphony is believed to express Mahler’s profound love of nature but the emphasis may just be on ‘profound love’. The originally suppressed second movement was Blumine (derived from ‘Blume’ that means ‘flower’). It is highly sentimental – an almost moonlit Mendelssohnian trifle – but more resonant of true emotion than either of the two Liszt pieces. The quietly evocative trumpet call we soon hear is suggestive of the post horn interlude in Mahler’s Third Symphony.

The First Symphony begins very softly with what Mahler called ‘a sound of nature’. It is full of allusions to his vocal music, firstly through his Richter-inspired Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and ‘Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld’ – the ‘Wayfarer’ here is clearly Mahler himself. After the second movement Ländler, there is Frère Jacques (known in the German speaking world as ‘Brother Martin’). It starts as a mournful double-bass solo, and then it unwinds lugubriously through the entire orchestra to become a grotesquely distorted dance with some klezmer music where Mahler advertises his Jewish roots. In addition to discarding the original title Titan, Mahler also jettisoned an elaborate descriptive program for each movement because he felt that audiences no longer needed this for his music. Everything ends in a rumbustious evocation of unrequited love but it also seems to say that this heartbreak can be overcome.

Fischer and his exceptional ensemble played the Symphony as if they owned it – which in a sense they do since it was premièred in Budapest in 1889. If they were just a little too respectful in the first three movements and tested the audience’s ears in the vast Royal Albert Hall with some very quiet sounds at times, nothing prepared us for the brassy euphoric triumph of the final movement and as the music completed a headlong dash to the finishing line not only, as expected, did the eight horns stand up with bells turned towards us but so too did the rest of the brass and all the woodwind. Stirring stuff, impeccable music-making – and showmanship!

Fischer and ‘Audience Choice’ audience.

Then, as if things could not get any better – they did, for it was soon time for the ‘Audience Choice’ Prom! A whole concert of encores would be selected from a repertoire of 285 pieces: how could this work was the thought uppermost in my mind and surely there must be some ‘fix’ to it? As the audience entered the auditorium everyone was given a raffle ticket, the tuba was turned into a tombola and passing through the audience people selected a number. If it was yours it was a chance to select a piece of music and then have it voted on by the entire congregation. While the valiant music librarian rushed off stage to collect the orchestral parts some of his colleagues entertained us with everything from Transylvanian folk music, playing the Didgeridoo, to four percussionists rhythmically slapping themselves – that had to be seen to be believed.

They managed to ‘read-through’ six short pieces in 75 minutes without apparent rehearsal; some they would undoubtedly know better than others and the audience gave them an easy ride with Kodály’s Dances of Galánta and Romanian Folk Dances from Bartók, but providing greater challenges were Josef Strauss’s Music of the Spheres Waltz, Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture, Stravinsky’s Tango and the hectic Hungarian March from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust was a suitably rip-roaring conclusion. All were tackled exuberantly and with considerable technical skill by these indefatigable musicians. No less ‘indefatigable’ was the charismatic Iván Fischer himself – both as MC and conductor – one of the highlights was when there was no reply to a raffle number called, he threw a toy rabbit into the audience for someone to catch and choose something. Everything was so well-drilled that it cannot be the first time Fischer and his orchestra have done this and this idea must be a part of their famed innovative concerts in their homeland.

I cannot imagine a British conductor and orchestra bringing this off so well as they would be much too self-conscious – bravo to all concerned for reminding me, everyone present, and hopefully some listening at home, how in most of Europe classical music is not the po-faced ritual it often is in this country – and so often at the Proms – but something with which you can have so much ‘Fun’.

Jim Pritchard, Seen and Heard International