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Iván Fischer, like that other Austro-Hungarian conductor, Franz Josef Haydn, made his reputation and honed his skills with his own orchestra. Haydn was subject only to the generous will of
his employer. Iván Fischer had a more arduous task with his Budapest Festival Orchestra, for he had to face the leftover Communist bureaucrats and competition from dozen-odd messy orchestras which had ruined the once glittering capital.

But Maestro Fischer is not only a splendid conductor: he is a man of iron willpower. He braved the slings and arrows, kept his orchestra intact. And today, while one of the luminaries of the international conducting world, he still has first allegiance to the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

That “Festival” in the name was inspired by Budapest’s “Festival Week”, where he presented them for the first time 28 years ago. But any time they come to New York is a festive occasion, for they always give a unique performance.

Last night, for the first of two Bartók-Schubert concerts, Mr. Fischer pulled a little practical joke. Who had ever heard of Schubert’s Magic Harp overture? Maybe Schubert experts. But when the first notes came out, this was nothing but the extremely popular
Rosamunde overture (which was originally written for another opera).

Unfortunately, with the sounds of the Minnesota Orchestra still in my ears from the previous evening, the Budapest Festival Orchestra sounded…well, a little provincial. Mr. Fischer is a European above all, and while the players are excellent, that snap-and-polish of the American orchestra was replaced by a more informal, warm quality to the overture.

By the end of the concert, one was accustomed to this somewhat smaller sound. In
fact, those forces helped Mr. Fischer to give a rhythmic buoyancy to the first movement of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. Mr. Fischer balanced that springing rhythm with a graceful, rather gentle approach to the work as a whole. The 6/8 rhythm of the Andante was never forced, and one had to love the Minuet, which was anything but a dance. This was more a proud little march. Mr. Fischer eschewed the usual jollity of the Finale for a more gracious tempo, but that was all in line with his approach to the whole symphony.

Many in the packed house had come because András Schiff, would be playing two concertos from his landsman, Béla Bartók.

Perhaps something was wrong with the balance, but Mr. Schiff, who ordinarily avoids the percussiveness of the very percussive first movement of the First Concerto, sounded, with the orchestra, something close to banging away. Like a champion boxer who is always
punching to keep his opponent up, Mr. Schiff and the orchestra made more physical impact than musical sense.

The second movement with its quiet battery of percussion was far more intriguing, and the pianist was entirely in his element when the trombones growled and drowned out the “night music”, leading to a jumping, fiery finale.

Absolutely no reservations on the Third Concerto. Bartók’s powers hadn’t diminished in his last years, but this was written for his wife, so it is a concerto of love, melody and the most exquisite and delicate piano playing. Not that the fireworks were missing. But in the second movement, when Mr. Schiff played those almost naive chorale melodies, with the slightest crescendo, it was a moment of pure magic from a magical performer.

By the way, those who missed him tonight should know that he is performing again tonight (the Bartók Second Concerto) and Monday (Bach Inventions, Bartók’s onlySonata and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

Probably sold out already, but worth a major effort to attend.

Harry Rolnick, Concerto Net