BFO
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Press reviews March 06, 2018

Belated melodies

With Janowski conducting, the BFO demonstrated sensitivity in adaptation and provided motivating and co-equal accompaniment. They also excelled when performing on their own. No wonder: they have known and been fond of Janowski – an outstanding artist and an exceptionally trained professional – for a long time. He is anything but a showman: his movements are not intended to send a message to the audience, and he does not offer to interpret or explain the music. In terms of visuals, what you see is cool and dry: pacing, pieces of information and instructions translated into movements of the hands. (Janowski has paid a price for his likeable leanness: his career has not reached the heights his skills would otherwise have destined him for.) A critical review by Kristóf Csengery, Élet és Irodalom.

(BFO, Marek Janowski. Müpa Budapest, 12 February)

When, many years ago, notable artists in the Hungarian music scene began mentioning in interviews how good it would be for Budapest to see the construction of a large and modern, state-of-the-art concert hall, one argument that surfaced regularly was that there exist pieces of 19th and 20th century symphonic literature which may only be done justice when performed in a venue with a sizeable stage and generous indoor space. As examples, Mahler’s symphonies were mentioned, including No. 2, No. 3 and No. 8, along with Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder suite – and, of course, Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony. Having now had the opportunity to hear Strauss’s work at Müpa Budapest (inaugurated thirteen years ago already), performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and conducted by Marek Janowski, many in the audience must have realised: indeed, this is one of the many reasons this building was raised: to facilitate the authentic performance of music like this.

I do not know where the idea for the concert’s line-up came from: if it was perhaps Janowski who proposed the pieces, or Iván Fischer who decided to ask the orchestra’s visitor to help bring these particular compositions to life. Regardless: what was clear was that the two pieces of music on the programme were very well suited to the personality, mind-set, interests and perfectionism of this seventy-nine year old German conductor of Polish origin. The first part featured Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s (1897–1957) Violin Concerto (1945); Korngold was born in Austria but escaped Nazism in time, fleeing to America. The solo was performed by Arabella Steinbacher (1981), the Munich-born daughter of a German father and a Japanese mother. The concert continued after the intermission with the final symphonic piece by the composer of Heldenleben: An Alpine Symphony (1915), which concluded Strauss’s thirty years of efforts in the genre.

The two pieces went together very well: both the concerto and the symphonic composition were masterpieces of late Romanticism, and both are evocative examples of a developmental phase of German-Austrian music when Romanticism had already become overly bombastic. Their melodies and harmonies, as well as their arrangement, became the expressions of a unique process of fermentation: a process which pointed directly to the dissolution of the system of classical and romantic music and to the birth of modern music. Both works are filled with emotional and passionate fervour and excitement, and – in their own different ways – both pieces feature as defining elements of the sensual nature of music. In the concerto, this is manifested primarily in the spicy flavours of the harmonies, whereas in the case of the symphonic composition (requiring a massive apparatus of performers to stage, an orchestra of 130), it is the arrangement which provides the setting for sensual revelry.

For the Budapest audience, Janowski is something of an old acquaintance. He first reached international acclaim with his centennial recording of the Ring, released in 1983 and featuring a stunning line-up rendering a joyful, quality performance. He is perfectly at home in this genre. Yet his physique is also a highly favourable factor when it comes to performances of works by composers like Korngold or Richard Strauss, generally exhilarated in style. Janowski is a highly disciplined musician who works in an objective manner; thus, if he is conducting pieces like Korngold’s Violin Concerto or Struss’s An Alpine Symphony, his personality is the guarantee that the performance will include no disproportionate hyperboles, and the concerts will not meander down the dead-ends of sensationalist solutions simply to augment their success.

Korngold’s concerto offered Arabella Steinbacher an opportunity to show off her extraordinary mastery of technique and richness of sound. She was confident in giving form to the characters, with her sound filled with colour; she also possessed the necessary skill to bring the piece to life in an authentic way. Her performance also incorporated the excitement, vibrations and overstated joie de vivre typical of Korngold’s music. At the same time, however, it appears that her personality as a musician also includes a certain element of restraint: the sort of discipline that not only resist getting carried away, but at a certain point turns into an obstacle to self-revelation, and prevents her from elaborating upon the personal nature of the production. In other words, and more generally speaking: the violinist’s performance lacked the extravagance of the sort of exceptionalism characteristic of the performances of other truly significant performers of Korngold’s violin concerto, such as Jascha Heifetz or Kristóf Baráti. Yet it is precisely this kind of exceptionalism which would enable this “late” piece of music – loved by audiences, but received rather disapprovingly by contemporary critics – to shine in its true beauty as a thoroughly attractive composition. As an encore, Steinbacher performed the first movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Solo Violin.

With Janowski conducting, the BFO demonstrated sensitivity in adaptation and provided motivating and co-equal accompaniment. They also excelled when performing on their own. No wonder: they have known and been fond of Janowski – an outstanding artist and an exceptionally trained professional – for a long time. He is anything but a showman: his movements are not intended to send a message to the audience, and he does not offer to interpret or explain the music. In terms of visuals, what you see is cool and dry: pacing, pieces of information and instructions translated into movements of the hands. (Janowski has paid a price for his likeable leanness: his career has not reached the heights his skills would otherwise have destined him for.) As a result of all of this, however, the emotional and passionate richness of An Alpine Symphony was revealed in an amazing way. Janowski took on the naturalism and illustrative character of the picturesque score – along with its naiveté. Unlike Steinbacher, his discipline does not restrain and does not hinder, but rather creates balance and lends strength to help reach fulfilment. And fulfilment was reached: the Alpensinfonie radiated in all its colours, and the work came alive and left an impact, thanks to the superb joint efforts of the conductor and the orchestra.

You can reach the original Hungarian article here.