Two heartening facts first. Iván Fischer’s much-loved crew remains one of the few world-class orchestras with an individual voice, centred on lean, athletic strings adaptable to Fischer’s febrile focus (perfect for Enescu and Bartók, not quite so much for Mahler). And though the Budapest players remain Hungary’s greatest musical ambassadors, the anti-Orbán stance of their eloquent chief conductor means that they will never be propaganda tools of the new nationalism; we can welcome them back to the Proms unreservedly. The critical review of The Art Desk.
Fischer is not only something of a hero for saying what’s right; he’s also a masterly conductor. To see him dance ever so precisely, placing strong accents with absolute clarity, through the second movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was to find what we were hearing perfectly complemented in visual terms. That he can play so magisterially with the phrases, though, wasn’t always in the best interests of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. There is much art behind the seemingly naive journey into the woods and out again, but attention doesn’t always need to be drawn to it (what I’ve heard of his brother Ádám’s Mahler cycle on CD feels more organic). The Schubertian second melody of the opening sleigh-ride was pushed almost over a cliff on its return; the great slow movement’s plains of heaven, though powerfully contrasted with episodes of profound sorrow, had a few unnecessary bumps of tempo and texture. Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra at the PromsYet it is understandable that Fischer and his players wanted to fine-tune a very vivid interpretation. Placings for the Mahler were as carefully considered as they had been for the Bartók: the harp, to the fore in the first half (pictured above), centre back between two groups of double-basses, crucial for the final descent into silence, a single horn coming to the front not because it’s an obbligato instrument, as in the parallel scherzo of the Fifth Symphony, but simply to duet with solo and collective violins.