Fischer and Budapest: The achievement of Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra is singular in our time. In an era when all the great new ensembles are chamber orchestras, early music, contemporary music, chamber music, anything except full symphony orchestras, Ivan Fischer created what most would never even dare - a truly great orchestra from nothing that can stand with the greatest and oldest in the world.
Was it their finest night in the concert hall? Certainly not, but the achievement was there for all to hear. Fischer and the BFO did two concerts over the course of a single night. The first concert was not quite the revelation for which I’d hoped, the second one was. Fischer began with an orchestral arrangement of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. I am not a Liszt fan on my most charitable days, but there is something about an orchestral arrangement of the Mephisto Waltz that feels too lumbering by half. Even in these nimble hands, it’s just clumsy. Then came a far better treat: Liszt’s Totentanz - a superbly crafted 20-minute piece of virtuoso fluff for piano and orchestra. The Croatian pianist, Dejan Lazic, is an ideal Lisztian: fearlessly ascending to flights of bravura vulgarity that would terrify a more timid pianist. Totentanz is neither deep nor particularly great, but it is a very well constructed piece of music that’s entertaining as hell. Bravo to all involved. But the piece everybody really cared about was the Mahler, a composer for whom Fischer is compiling a reputation second to none in his generation. Unfortunately, this was not the revelation for which I’d hoped. Fischer has conducted perhaps the greatest Mahler 2 on record, so I had enormous hopes for this Mahler 1. Alas, for all his fire, Ivan Fischer is not a died-in-the-wool Romantic at heart. Mahler 2 is a piece based on effects, and it requires iron control to bring them off. Mahler 1 is a more natural (and to my ears, greater) piece of music, and requires the ebb and flow which only spontaneous musicianship can bring. There was freedom and rubato aplenty in this performance, but it felt imposed from without.Fischer was unable to do bring that off, that is, until the finale. I’m not sure I have ever heard the 20-minute finale done better. Suddenly, the musicianship felt spontaneous and right.
The revelations didn’t end there. Next came a ‘by-request’ concert in which audience members were given a catalogue of 285 pieces and three numbers for were drawn out of a lottery from a tuba. After the three lucky audience members chose their favorites, the audience got to vote as a whole. And so we were then treated to a battle between the Prommers and the Classic FM audience, with the sweet sounds of the Prommers winning out every time. So rather than the usual Classical Top 40, we got Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, Berlioz’s Rakoczy March, Strauss’s Music of the Spheres Waltz and the fastest ever performance of Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture we shall ever hear. What amazes is that though none of these works were rehearsed (indeed, it’s probable some were not played in years), Fischer took absolutely enormous interpretive risks in each of them. The results were not always note perfect, they didn’t need to be. The raw nature of this concert seemed to spur the players to intensity that much greater. In its own way, this was a revelatory concert.
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