The aesthetic commitment being offered was never in doubt. By programming two full nights of Bartok at Carnegie Hall, the touring Budapest Festival Orchestra and its music director, Ivan Fischer, were signaling their passion for a Hungarian modernist whose works they have memorably recorded. The question was whether some of Bartok’s celebrated touchstones — the Concerto for Orchestra, the “Miraculous Mandarin” suite and a concert performance of the one-act opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” — would stand noticeably apart from the comparative rarities on each bill. Critical review by Seth Colter Walls, New York Times.
On Friday, that sometimes seemed to be the case, to the rarities’ advantage. The “Mandarin” had its requisite, slashing severity, though occasionally a bit too much (as when the heroically riffing trombones ran riot over the other sections). By the end of the concert, there was an ideal sense of balance, during the Concerto for Orchestra. Here the strings were allowed more space to delight in complex blends of textures, made of strands both sinewy and silken.
Yet what stood out most was an informational (though not didactic) tour through several of the composer’s works for student singers and orchestral players. In brief remarks from the stage, Mr. Fischer observed that Bartok was a dedicated educator.
So, too, was Mr. Fischer. By allowing Cantemus Choir — a girls’ ensemble from the Zoltan Kodaly Primary School — significant time on the Carnegie stage, the conductor helped emphasize Bartok’s ability to merge charming, youthful motifs with the occasional dollop of more complex harmony. (This was particularly true of the selections with orchestral accompaniment.) Mr. Fischer cracked a joke about his cohorts pretending to be a “student orchestra,” though there was nothing apprentice about their engagement. Nor any sense that the players’ talents were being wasted on this thoughtfully constructed music.
Saturday’s concert had a similarly instructive angle, this time focused on Bartok’s appetite for folk music. In that night’s commentary, Mr. Fischer described the composer’s ethnomusicological practice of recording authentic performances of local songs, then invited a trio from the orchestra to the front of the stage. The bassist, violist and violinist first played a series of traditional Romanian dances “as Bartok may have heard them” (in Mr. Fischer’s formulation).
When one of the jubilant traditional melodies was taken up by the full orchestra, signaling the beginning of Bartok’s “Romanian Folk Dances,” the crowd cut short its enthusiastic applause for the trio to pay attention to the brief but potent Bartokian adaptation for orchestra. (A similar spell was cast, later on, when the same trio accompanied the contemporary Hungarian vocalist Marta Sebestyen, in a series of pieces that preceded the orchestra’s tour through Bartok’s “Hungarian Peasant Songs.”)
The “Bluebeard’s Castle” that followed might have felt anticlimactic, after those revels. But the performance was, for me, the highlight of the weekend. This take breathed fresh life into a work that, in recent years, has perhaps been familiar to New York audiences through Mariusz Trelinski’s Metropolitan Opera production.
In its high-tech yet one-note grimness, the Met’s presentation can feel like a slog. This concert performance was more dramatically varied — with the mezzo-soprano Ildiko Komlosi’s Judith seeming possessed of some persuasive (if fatally misguided) romantic hopes. And the orchestral playing was as exciting here as at any point during Budapest’s Carnegie stand. Mr. Fischer steered toward each new horror with an ingenuity capable of conjuring all the narrative’s gothic scenery — no strobing, blood-red light shows necessary.