The last time I heard the Budapest Festival Orchestra play in New York, its longtime conductor and music director, Ivan Fischer, had prepared a little joke: In the middle of one of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, a percussionist walked past his colleagues to the front of the stage, settled down on a soloist’s bench set up there and reached into his jacket for a mallet and a tiny brass bell. Then he joined in the music, adding little pealing accents that suddenly seemed like the work’s main feature. By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIMFEB. 19, 2016.
I’ve long admired Mr. Fischer for the creativity, humor and whimsy he brings to performances. But on Thursday night, when the Budapest players presented music by Weber, Liszt and Prokofiev at Carnegie Hall, the genie seemed to have escaped the bottle.
Here, too, a percussion player took a front-row seat. But in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which the pianist Marc-André Hamelin performed with somewhat disconcerting, bipolar power, the prominent triangle part is already so extensive that the 19th-century critic Eduard Hanslick mockingly called the work a “triangle concerto.” The percussionist Laszlo Herboly played it with an aggressive gusto that seemed intent on proving Hanslick right.
Mr. Hamelin, meanwhile, emphasized the work’s extremes, with a hard-edged, almost brutal sound in the work’s martial moments, and world-weary delicacy in the lyrical ones. The only way I could reconcile them into an integrated interpretation was as an indictment of Liszt’s caddish flirtation with military metaphors.
Perhaps that was the evening’s hidden agenda. The concert opened with Weber’s overture to “Der Freischütz” and ended with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. A written note emphasized that these works had in common an immediate popularity, a faint excuse for a program if ever there was one. But they are also war horses in a more basic sense of the word: All three play with military symbols. With jingoistic populism rife on both sides of the Atlantic these days, Mr. Fischer may have sought to make a statement.
Unfortunately, the orchestra’s playing only muddled the message. Yes, the strings still have a warm, generous sound, and the wind section is stocked with highly gifted players. But coordination was off in many instances; tutti outbursts were loud and metallic. In the symphony’s luscious Adagio, the first violins played the melody with sugared intensity, but the little trembling arpeggios that accompany them failed to speak.
The most successful moment was the second movement, in which Mr. Fischer found the perfect balance between forward thrust and a relaxed, gleeful playfulness.