If we in Britain cannot hear the Vienna Philharmonic that often, at least the Budapest Festival Orchestra seem to enjoy coming here so much. They are a truly top-class orchestra, with a swelling string tone, warm but not overly so, as well as rounded brass and talkative winds. Under the baton of their founder, Iván Fischer, they bring a sense of reacquaintance to almost all that they play.
The results, here, were stunning. Sensible but very interesting programming paid great dividends with all the featured works. Liszt for once got his due, and Mahler received performances worthy of his spectacular early works. So little of the Mahler glut in the past two years has been well-played, and less has been even passably conducted, that this was a real treat.
From the sight of cellos digging in and the attack of the violas at the start of the Mephisto Waltz, it was clear that the BFO are an extraordinarily committed orchestra. Their sound seems to be brutally forced into being from the visible exhortations of Péter Szabó’s vigorous principal cello: emanating from him, the strings bring a festive, chatty tone and quite remarkable colour, especially through subtle changes in vibrato. There was a hazy quality to much of the Liszt, as if Ravel and Tchaikovsky were being reimagined and supplanted, and a moving tenderness to its central slower sections. Mahler’s Blumine might have been taken a little too quick for some, but Fischer seemed anxious to show us how much more secure a soundworld this is, generous and warm, an edgier form of Strauss. Principal trumpet Zsolt Czeglédi was in particularly warm mood here. One could easily see, though, why Mahler removed this interlude from his first symphony, as it would have disrupted the formal unity of that work, which Fischer would later make so very clear.
I can’t say that, before this Proms season, I had heard of Dejan Laziæ, the composer-pianist responsible for a transcription of Brahms’s violin concerto into a ‘third’ piano concerto. His Totentanz, however, screamed from the piano in unforgettably bolshy terms. An evil tone bellowed from the piano’s bassy rumble as the brass began to blare out. Electricity in quicker parts of this rather miraculous if long-winded piece was matched by melting fugues in which we were immedately back in the world of Bach and even Beethoven (a dance of the dead indeed). Liszt and Laziæ in cheeky mood began taunting death as if with a gang of merry men: they might even have been pre-emptively mocking Mahler’s obsession with death. Intoxicating technique and a jaunty revelling in Liszt’s paraphrasing wit characterised an enthralling performance. Laziæ, meanwhile, obliged with Giovanni Dettori’s wonderfully correct Bachian fugue on Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’. (For those who are that way inclined, the composer has published the score as a free .pdf on his website, here.)
The BFO, however, are famous above all for their Mahler. In my review of Semyon Bychkov’s Mahler 6 last week, I took issue with what I felt was an overly dramatic reading: many other people, it appears, completely disagreed. Iván Fischer’s characterful account of Mahler 1 showed that this kind of approach can pay great dividends as long as musical values – structural ones, that is – remain clearly at the forefront of a performance, rather than a conductor’s more arbitrary whims. In this symphony particularly, Mahler achieves a great deal with very little thematic material, and Fischer brought this out emphatically (the link with the transformations of Totentanz was nicely clear). Allied to an orchestral tone that sounded elemental – partially down to the natural balances created by having the double basses arrayed across the back of the stage – and naturalistic in equal does, Fischer delivered the kind of reading that one hears all too rarely. I should point out that, re-listening to the broadcast of the concert, the orchestra sounded much fuller in the concert hall.
Much of this Mahler symphony is an exercise in scene-painting: the first movement a pictorial spring; the second a village full of dance; the third a morose Laurel and Hardy farce involving a funeral cortège, an innocently intrusive klezmer band plying its wares, and the jaunted lover’s Die zwei blauen Augen Lied, halfway between Schubert and a Hungarian Dance; and finally the last, fourth movement, in which the protagonist finally appears, questioning himself, eventually achieving absolution in a glary affirmation of the first movement’s naturalism. Fischer revelled in all this, with a twinkly, distant opening somewhere at the junction of Beethoven 9, Das Rheingold, and Also sprach Zarathustra. The peeking of the birds was shaped quite beautifully, with Beethoven-esque pointing from the winds assuring a chirruping mobile phone didn’t sound that out of place. The BFO’s sound was effortlessly natural, Fischer moving them through the movement’s architecture with a faultlessly sure hand. One might have questioned the painfully slow buildup to the movement’s final climax – to be repeated in the final movement, aping the fifth symphony – but that rushed to the back of one’s mind as all sunny hell broke loose.
The Scherzo – after a break for applause that Fischer quickly dismissed – brought heartfelt rusticity. The Trio was shaped with a quirky lilt as if in a Brahmsian dance, the principal oboist’s slightest pause at the top of his theme perhaps the most telling example. But the melancholy peace was shredded by the cellists’ attack. The funeral march third movement was gloriously Hungarian in its phrasing (the cliché, I’m afraid, is very hard to get away from), if glorious only in its grief.
It is in the finale, however, that Mahler ties everything together, and it was here that Fischer and his BFO were at their greatest. It coursed in savagely, starting its journey seemingly mid-stream with insistence and ghoul, controlled and precise but with vehement abandon. Its second subject – the funeral march refracted – stole in, a searing cry that took me aback: one almost expects tears in the third movement, but here, mid-finale? There was no Rattle-like fuss to be found, just a merciless development. Just as one begins to think that this finale will follow the same structural course of the first movement, the wide-open avian spaces of that movement shine through as if to emphasise unity of Mahler’s thinking. The second subject returns, this time a whimper emboldened by purpose through nature, and then, finally, the affirmation promised by the first movement arrives. Here Fischer – rightly – used the same buildup as in that first movement, the long slow construction that had jarred on first hearing: this was one of those revelatory movements that make you stop and say, “so that was the point of that”. From there, the glorious horn calls in answer to the winds and other brass were pretty inevitable, but Fischer pulled off one more coup de theâtre: Mahler asks the horns to stand for their finale chorale, but as Fischer showed they are constantly answering the other brass, whom he asked to stand shortly after, as if in response to the horns’ dare of resolution. As if to mock the whole enterprise, the winds then stood too, just for fun. It all made complete musical sense, if you thought about it, and one wondered whether Mahler himself had missed a trick.
This was an incredible performance precisely because it was so believable: so often the problem with Mahler performances is that they do not do enough to justify their endings (like Bruckner performances). This one, however, was totally convincing. A brilliant concert.
David Allen, Unpredictable inevability (blog)