Budapest Festival Orchestra
Press reviews September 03, 2011

Organized mayham at the Prom

Following the disgraceful shenanigans at Thursday night’s Israel Phil prom, the only demonstrations at last night’s two concerts were in support of Iván Fischer’s gloriously versatile Budapest Festival Orchestra, replete with a back row of no fewer than eight double-basses, who first, dressed in formal black attire, delivered a searing Mahler 1 to conclude their pre-arranged concert and then dressed down before inviting an enthusiastic late-night audience to decide the programme for them.

The formal part of the evening, before a packed Royal Albert Hall, split between Mahler and Liszt, included an exciting Totentanz (Liszt’s ‘Dance of Death’) in which the young Croatian pianist and composer Dejan Laziæ brought the house down.

But this summer’s Proms have showcased a plethora of wonderful international orchestras and soloists and the more relaxed “Audience Choice” event was what made this night so different from all other nights. Entering the auditorium, members of the audience were each given a raffle ticket and a programme listing an exceptionally wide-ranging 285 movements on offer. A night of organised mayhem, perhaps?

We could pick from old Hungarian favourites (unlikely to provide much of a challenge!) to more original ideas – Leroy Anderson’s Plink, Plank, Plunk! (suggested and dumped by the audience), Bottesini’s Gran duo concertante, Dinicu’s Hora staccato, Leó Weiner’s Serenade in F minor – to Beethoven’s entire symphonic output (the Choral excluded). For each piece three concertgoers drew raffle tickets from József Bazsinka’s capacious tuba and the winners shouted out their choice, on which the audience voted by show of hands and acclamation.

And how we played to the orchestra’s strengths! Starting with Kodály’s Dances of Galánta (“This was an easy choice!” Fischer laughed), we also demanded Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and the night ended with a bravura Hungarian March from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. In between we got Josef Strauss’s Music of the Spheres, Glinka’s overture Ruslan and Lyudmila and Stravinsky’s Tango (and how we enjoyed rejecting the likes of Brahms, Wagner and Ravel) and while the orchestra’s librarian was finding and distributing the chosen music at a speed of light, individual players did their own cameo solo turns, including a gem from the busy tuba-player on the didgeridoo, some wonderful Transylvanian folk music and a set by the percussionists whose instruments were their bodies.

And then the Budapest Festival players were sightreading their way through whatever we had thrown at them. Except that if this was sightreading they really are an exceptional bunch.Iván Fischer, holding it all together, is an untypical maestro. It was meant to be like “actors reading through a play” they’ve just been handed, he said. “We may not achieve perfection, we may even need to start all over again if things fall apart!”
But, of course, nothing did fall apart. Fischer created this orchestra in 1983 and it has developed a reputation as one of the world’s finest ensembles, with a portfolio of recordings which have drawn huge critical acclaim. He also has the common touch – and his fine band of players will have left promenaders wanting more of the same. Pick and choose your own concert when you get there. It’s a nice idea.

Anthony Craig, The Gramophone blog