Long queues, 6,000 enthusiastic spectators, a Hungarian orchestra and three Roma musicians. The Budapest Festival Orchestra gave two performances at the BBC Proms, one of the biggest classical music festivals in the world. We attended the second concert.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra is rehearsing for its Prom 55 concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London. The programme consists of virtuosic works: two of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies (No. 1 and 3), two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances (No. 1 and 11), Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, and after a break, “Beethoven’s Tenth”, i.e. Brahms’ First Symphony. The morning rehearsal sees conductor Iván Fischer put the finishing touches on the performance’s lyricism and expressiveness. He deals in no exaggerations or excessive flashiness: make this sound more painful, this more beautiful, this more brilliant. Feel the fire here, calm down there. They are figuring out how to make things beautiful, and if possible, even more so. And of course it’s possible.
The Festival Orchestra is on a summer’s end tour. They arrived in London from Ravello, and after the two Prom concerts they’ll continue to Santander, San Sebastian, Stresa and Merano. Early on the morning on 23 August, at the orchestra’s invitation, I accompanied them to see how they take on Britain’s largest classical music festival, the BBC Proms.
On 22 August, the Festival Orchestra played Enescu’s First Orchestral Suite, Bartók’s “Music” and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, all at the same venue at Prom 54. In its review of Prom 54, Arts Desk called the ensemble “one of the few world-class orchestras with an individual voice, centred on lean, athletic strings.” In the following we’ll focus on the second concert.
I’d never seen the Festival Orchestra rehearse before, but I had some ideas about why they are so good. Individually they are great musicians who, parallel to their symphony orchestra engagements, also play chamber music, perform in early music ensembles, and organise and perform Dancing On The Square events. In other words, they have the freedom to experience music. They enjoy having the opportunity to be perfectionists, and that much is expected of them.
I see mutual respect between conductor and orchestra: Fischer delivers the ideas, be it Dancing On The Square, a Bernstein Marathon, the Bridging Europe series, opera performances, a flash mob, or singing together. The players, on the other hand, deliver quality. The Festival Orchestra does indeed operate on a high budget by Hungarian standards, but in exchange they are a true nexus of creativity. And, as a Times columnist once said, the orchestra does more for the country’s image than every other cultural institution put together.
“This must be played very beautifully, otherwise it will sound terrible” is an example of what kind of instructions the orchestra receives during the rehearsal. Everythings sounds louder in the Royal Albert Hall, and ever since the 1960s when fibreglass “mushrooms” were installed on the auditorium ceiling, there is no excessive echo. The hall’s acoustics are still not perfect, but Róbert Farkas – who during our conversation reveals that he is accompanying the orchestra as assistant conductor – goes out of his way to test the sound of various instruments at several spots in the hall. Besides this, leading the vocal warm-up is also his responsibility (more on that later). While the rehearsal is under way, BBC camera operators also set up for the broadcast.
British conductor Sir Henry Wood, extraordinarily progressive and innovative for his age, is generally credited as the father of the Promenade concerts. (He was the first to employ women in his orchestra, but it also seems he foresaw that in a hundred years time, the greatest challenge would be how to make classical music accessible to the public.) The guy who commissioned Wood to run the series was Robert Newman, a hyperactive stockbroker and a bass singer in his spare time. He must have been good at it, since he was a friend of Sir Henry. Newman’s venture was a series of affordable evening concerts in London. This is how the Proms came to be, with a mission that has always been to be an accessible festival of quality concerts. I would sum up its spirit by saying that it was conceived to generate an audience, and not to serve one.
The Royal Albert Hall has a capacity of around 6,000 and regularly fills up, but the concerts have not become lighter. This year, Hungary was represented only by the Festival Orchestra and András Schiff (the latter is hardly surprising, not least because of his title of Knight Bachelor). But it is not the big names but the interesting projects that really matter. Among this year’s highlights are the Aurora Orchestra, which plays while standing; the Radiophonic Workshop, an electronic studio running for 60 years now; the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, which pairs Bach with contemporary world premieres; and the Relaxed Prom (where people are allowed to stand up and move about during the concert should they feel like doing so).
Iván Fischer and his orchestra are long-time favourites of British audiences, something the BBC’s commentator also mentions. There are long queues for the 23 August concert, and many are in line for standing tickets, which in this case are not for the top rows but the ground floor in front of the stage. At a first glance, the audience is more varied than what I am used to in Budapest: older, younger and middle-aged people, the well-to-do and the less so. David Attenborough is sitting a few rows in front of me (the number two attraction of the evening.)
“It’s not my first, or even my second time performing at the Proms,” says violinist Emese Gulyás. “Playing here is always an extraordinary experience, because the audience is unlike any other in the world. When we get on stage you see a look of honest expectation on their faces, and with dropped jaws they listen to our playing, or they follow along, orchestral score in hand.”
It’s just after half seven, and it’s a full house at the Royal Albert Hall. The orchestra arrives, and Iván Fischer first introduces Jenő Lisztes. Before the concert, I spoke a few words with the 32-year-old cimbalom player. He is of the generation of Roma musicians who learned to play music not only at home with their families, but also received “mainstream” music education. He attended a music primary school and is a graduate of the Liszt Academy, so performing with a symphony orchestra is nothing unusual for him. “My role right now is to improvise a bit.” He has mixed feelings about how he got into the orchestra. “Oszkár Ökrös was a part of this project with the Festival Orchestra for 10-12 years, and unfortunately he passed away in January. That’s why they approached me.”
British audiences love this “Gypsy flavour”: after Lisztes has demonstrated what his instrument is capable of – and after only two minutes of music! – he receives a grand applause. Then the orchestra joins him for Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1. The orchestra is enriched by the thick, full-bodied sound of the cimbalom, and there are just as many delicacies to be heard. The strings, together with the triangle, have an unmatched lightness to them, while Gabriella Pivon’s flute dances.
Violinist Eszter Lesták Bedő said before the concert that people from around the world love it when the Festival Orchestra gives a taste of Hungarian spirit. “It sounds very distinctive, and a Hungarian orchestra has the chance to play this music that is built on folklore and based on folk melodies,” she adds, referring to Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. Now comes the First Hungarian Dance, and Fischer calls József Lendvai Csócsi Sr. to the stage, who jumps into the piece with infallible instinct. This time it is not the conductor dictating the tempo, but the prímás (Gypsy band leader). This gives the music a special swing. “The players were having fun in this jam session, the best kind of crossover with outrageous rubatos” – Bachtrack wrote. After Brahms comes Liszt again, this time the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 3, with Lendvai’s devilish improvisations.
The 74-year-old player is then followed by his 43-year-old son. He is a double-edged sword, in possession of a diploma from the Liszt Academy, and therefore an expert in both classical playing as well as traditional finesse. His demonstration exhausts the concept of polyphony, playing pizzicato and arco at the same time, his eyes glow with a comet’s fire, his strings booming the way the bedrock trembles. (Mihály Vörösmarty: The Ancient Gypsy, translator: Peter Zollman) Next we hear Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen with the orchestra – “with swagger, style and smoky tone”, according to the Bachtrack review. Finally father and son find each other with the sorrowful, tearful melody of Brahms’ Eleventh Hungarian Dance.
When Brahms composed his first symphony, contemporary audiences and critics called the grand work “Beethoven’s Tenth” (much to the envy of Bruckner, among others). It was already apparent during the rehearsal how much feeling there is in the playing of the BFO: Iván Fischer only puts the icing on the cake, doing nothing more than moulding the sentiments of the music into words to motivate the orchestra to play with even more expressiveness: “With painful resignation!” Sometimes he drew attention to structural climaxes: “When the music is starting to say something new, you have to show it!”
The symphony is well-known to Proms audiences, for it has been performed practically every year since its premiere in 1876. The Festival Orchestra’s performance is even greater because of the programme’s context: we can imagine the young Brahms having heard the same kind of Gypsy melodies from his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, as those played by the two Lendvais during the first part of the concert. He then composed his First Symphony, which was influenced as much by protestant sacred music as by Alpine horns and Gypsy passion. One of the chief interpretational strengths of Iván Fischer and the orchestra is their ability to build emotional arcs that move along a wide scale built from transparent textures. Simply put, they instinctively find the emotional climaxes in the music. They are effective and precise.
“Brahms’ music must be played with passion. It is so extreme, so full of emotions and energy, that you must play it this way or not at all”, says Emese Gulyás after the concert. “It is great to experience with the Festival Orchestra that when the concert begins, everyone approaches each other and Iván with the same level of excitement, and then nothing else matters but the music. This happened again today.”
The encore featured Brahms’ Fourth Hungarian Dance in a special performance, where the players sang along to the tune. “The sledge is flying, the girl is crying…” This joyful gesture is not unusual when it comes to the BFO. (In 2014, Fischer encouraged all his orchestras to sing encores. “Why? Because people must sing!”)
Synchronised applause, which I hate, doesn’t exist at the Proms, and that alone made it worth coming. And of course, to see what kind of ovation the Hungarians would receive here. Did I have to go all the way to London to hear these melodies?
(Cover image: Chris Christodoulou / BBC Proms)