Budapest Festival Orchestra
Press reviews August 29, 2018

London was blown away by the Festival Orchestra jamming with Gypsy musicians

“This orchestra... This conductor... These Gypsies... Give me a break, I’m finished, I need a drink!” There is a crowd of over 5,500 surging through the doors of the Royal Albert Hall in London, most of them smiling and humming under their breath. My question about the obvious – whether they liked the concert – sends them scrambling for words, just like the young man quoted above. With incredulous expressions they ask me if I’m serious – after all, it has been the most entertaining concert of the summer so far.

In the second half of August, the Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO) is touring Europe with two concert programmes. One featured Enescu, Bartók and Mahler, and was performed Wednesday night as part of BBC’s summer promenade concert festival for the greater public. It was followed the next day by the performance I heard, also at the Proms, which is still giving me goose bumps.

It is no easy feat to put into words what it feels like to have a world-famous, fully packed concert hall with 5,000 seated, plus 500 standing audience members, listening silently to two Hungarian Gypsy violinists – father (József Lendvai Csócsi) and son (József Lendvay) – playing Brahms’ Hungarian dances in perfect unison but at the same time in an entirely different way, with two double basses from the orchestra providing a soft bass accompaniment.

And when seconds later the entire orchestra picked up the same theme, it synchronised perfectly with Brahms’s intentions.

And this was just one of the many special moments of the evening. It was similarly unearthly when, at the end of the lines of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1, the orchestra fell silent and the third guest performer, Jenő Lisztes, took over and improvised virtuoso cadences on his cimbalom. And it was just as stirring to hear József Lendvay’s violin solo in Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, buoyed up by the softly playing violins of the Festival Orchestra, enabling the music to fill the gigantic domed hall.

It is, of course, a very rewarding musical idea to have a Hungarian orchestra complete with Gypsy guest musicians performing Romantic symphonic music inspired by Hungarian folk and art songs and Gypsy music, moving freely away from the scores, giving room for playfulness, improvisation and spontaneity. On the other hand, making quality classical music instead of cheap crossover affectation requires a lot of hard work, steady musical taste and lots of experience.

Plus Ivan Fischer, the leader of the BFO and one of the greatest showmen I’ve ever seen. The BFO gave exactly the same concert a few days earlier in Ravello, Fischer conducted the Konzerthaus orchestra in Berlin with the same guest performers in April, and in June, the Dancing on the Square project featured something very similar in front of the St. Stephen’s Basilica. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that this was a unique and one-time experience.

The sensitive subtlety of Fischer’s speech in between pieces about the Gypsy musical tradition and its development – embodied here by the father and son – is not something you can learn at school, nor is his gift for making well-paced and placed funny remarks. It was neither cheap nor too much, and the audience was chuckling and eagerly awaiting each of his introductions to the next piece.

Having sat through the morning rehearsal, I knew what precision and perfect attention to detail that went into the first half of the concert, which appeared both ingenious and spontaneous, but did nothing to break the illusion. Fischer, for example, consulted his assistant, conductor Róbert Farkas, who was sitting at the far back of the Royal Albert Hall, at length to determine how intensely the orchestra violinists should play to be heard in the back without drowning out the solos.

Farkas described in his introduction how much work went into starting the Hungarian dance off with improvisation by the two Gypsy violinists, then having the orchestra slowly join in and only then move to a faithful rendition of the piece. “This is certainly something Western audiences don’t hear,” he said, and indeed the Londoners, applauding vigorously, did not look as if this was an everyday occurrence for them.

The most entertaining part of the rehearsal was the rehearsal of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 after the intermission. Fischer was trying to get the orchestra to play with the same passion and using similar contrasts as the soloists to ensure the second part of the concert matched the first, and so the emotional symphony wouldn’t flag even for a moment. He addressed only the problematic parts and didn’t play anything for longer than a minute, though there were parts which he made the orchestra repeat four times, because he didn’t like what he heard. Either because there was a syncopation that didn’t hit right, or the dynamics were not as he desired them.

“No good. It sounds so limp!” he complained.

Although the orchestra was doing its best, he didn’t always seem fully satisfied. Then, at the concert, when approaching these problematic parts, his expression became even more animated, and when he felt it was called for, he even gave big, theatrical sighs to make sure he had the full attention of his musicians. His gestures illustrated exactly the points he made at the rehearsal, and the orchestra followed them so perfectly and subtly that I could hardly believe my eyes and ears.

I thought the first part of the concert was going to be the more sensational of the two with all the guest performers, but I was wrong. In Western Europe, it is not customary for audiences to applaud rhythmically. Here, what they did instead was stamp their feet and release a torrent of bravos for a long time afterwards. Considering that the BFO is a top-ranking, highly professional orchestra, it is a given that there should be perfect coordination between the sections or an excellent wind section. On the other hand, I have never heard a rendition of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 this expressive and richly nuanced.

I wanted to ask Fischer if he felt satisfied, but he wouldn’t agree to an interview due to having had major eye surgery a few weeks ago. He was strictly instructed to lay in bed, and can only stand at concerts at his own risk.

In fact, he was standing throughout the rehearsal in London; at other times, he instructs the orchestra and Róbert Farkas, conducting in his place, lying down.

Nothing illustrates his perfectionism better than having the orchestra simultaneously sing and play the last encore – Hungarian Dance No. 4 (also by Brahms, and with original lyrics) – four times, and only after some lengthy warm-ups to make sure the breathing is perfect.

It would have been nice to chat with the two Gypsy violinists, but it wasn’t possible. I would have liked to ask József Lendvay if plucking melodies with his left hand, which he uses to fret the strings, while bowing sharp staccatos on practically all four strings at once was intended as the self-ironic gesture of hyper-virtuosity that the greatly amused audience took it to be. I should add here that Lendvai Sr. uses a violin he inherited from his father, and he still follows the restaurant musician tradition. His son was raised in the same tradition, but he also received a classical musical education, has won various violin competitions, and plays on a Stradivarius permanently loaned to him.

Before the concert, I managed to chat a bit with cimbalom player Jenő Lisztes. He said that in preparation for working with the BFO, he was playing the cimbalom along to YouTube recordings of the orchestra’s performances. He recently made a recording at Abbey Road studio, has his own orchestra, is involved in several ensembles, and also performs alongside the Budapest Gipsy Orchestra, but, to quote him, “playing with this orchestra on this stage beats it all”.

Walking back to my room Thursday night, I was thinking to myself that perhaps, in the spirit of professional detachment, I should write something negative too to counterbalance all the praise. Then I realised that it felt so fantastic to be Hungarian tonight that I didn’t want to ruin it with such stupidity.

The full concert is available for listening on the BBC’s website.

The concert visit was courtesy of the invitation by the BFO.

(Cover image: Chris Christodoulou / BBC Proms)