BFO
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Press reviews February 27, 2019

The Changing Colours of a “Chameleon”

The ingenuity of Fischer as a conductor is worthy of Stravinsky; he is full of invention and humour, open to new things and a great combinator. It is just a trivial matter that the opening composition, Four Norwegian Moods, starts cued in by the concert master without the conductor, who himself marches to the stage only to the first bars of Intrada, and smilingly starts directing the piece when it is already being played – a small thing, but with a message: the greetings of the free, experimenting spirit and non-conformism. How else other than in a non-conformist way could Stravinsky be played?

Many of his contemporaries, including Debussy and Ravel, appreciated Stravinsky. Bartók was curious about him as is proven by the reference to The Firebird in his Piano Concerto no. 2. Others spoke of him and his work dismissively or in a rejecting way. Arnold Schönberg almost hated him. Those who loved him were themselves in quest of new things, musical freethinkers for whom “nothing was sacred”. As for those fellow composers who disliked him – well, the situation is a bit delicate if we want to be tactful when describing the reason for their aversion. We may continue beating about the bush, but, in the end, we will come to jealousy, that feeling of helplessness suffered by those who can see that the other is an unfathomable genius, a giant no-one can be compared to (that tiny man!), universal and boundless, the last genius of music history. Anyway, one of the stereotypical accusations against him was actually his most amazing virtue – the one expressed with an insult repeated until it became a common-place – that he was a “musical chameleon”. A transformation artist.

His oeuvre is usually divided into three periods. The first period, inherited from the Romantics and mixed with impressionism, was the “Russian period”, which in time also produced scandalously modern pieces (The Rite of Spring). This was followed by Neoclassicism (which, on the basis of certain compositions sometimes might as well be called Neo-Baroque), and then, finally came the personal, unorthodox serialism of Stravinsky composing twelve-tone works. However, within these three large phases, we can observe a wide range of colours and roles: masks displaying completely diverse characteristics from Pergolesi to Rossini to Tchaikovsky, to jazz, as well as to figures of the Old Testament or Greek mythology. Stravinsky had a protean nature, who could appear in a thousand forms and still have his own unmistakable voice in every stylistic period and composition. A similar figure in Hungarian art was Sándor Weöres.

The recent Stravinsky programme of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra manifested the art of transformation described above, through some superbly selected compositions. We could hear both miniatures and longer pieces. There was a piece inspired by Norwegian folk music (Four Norwegian Moods), another that was both Russian-sounding and jazzy (Scherzo à la russe), we could rock our upper bodies to the rhythm of an Argentinian Tango, heard the Neoclassicist Symphony of Psalms, where Latin texts from the Bible are set to music and which documents Stravinsky’s faith, and finally, the programme closed with The Rite of Spring, the work reinventing the pagan fertility rituals of the Slavs. Not everything can be crammed into a tight concert programme, but even in these five – shorter or longer – pieces we could have a glimpse, like the ocean in a drop, of the incredible variability of Stravinsky’s thinking and the inexhaustible diversity characterising his art.

The ingenuity of Fischer as a conductor is worthy of Stravinsky; he is full of invention and humour, open to new ideas and a great combinator. It is just a trivial matter that the opening composition, Four Norwegian Moods, starts cued in by the concert master without the conductor, who marches to the stage only to the first bars of Intrada, and smilingly starts directing the piece when it is already being played – a small thing, but with a message: the greetings of the free, experimenting spirit and non-conformism. How else other than in a non-conformist way could Stravinsky be played? This is reflected in Tango: as the outlandish, tart piece begins, two musicians of the orchestra, Noémi Molnár (violin) and Zoltán Fekete (viola) get up leaving their instrument on their chair to perform a professionally choreographed ballroom partner dance in the same, gloomily demimonde style as that of the composition. Then, we transcend and ascend during the Symphony of Psalms, one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, in a congenial rendition with Cantemus Mixed Choir of Nyíregyháza (choirmaster: Soma Szabó). This work is both reserved and moving, conjuring up an imaginary archaic Jewish music while all its sound are modern.

The conducting of Fischer and the razor sharp playing of the Festival Orchestra illuminate some important elements of Stravinsky’s musical thinking: the role of the obstinate repetitions, the decisive importance of the typical “alienated” characters, the giving up of the symmetry principle resulting in a dazzling variety of irregular rhythmic and metric structures, and, of course, the mosaic-like compositional technique, which, using film-like sharp cuts, places strongly contrasting short elements next to each other to create a great form from small fragments just like postmodern prose will do half a century later.

This is an outstanding concert: each moment is sensuous and each moment is thought provoking. The unsurpassable conclusion is no doubt the closing piece, The Rite of Spring played with extraordinary concentration and elemental force, grabbing the audience by the throat, nailing them to their chair, and then smashing them against the wall. This is a brutally great performance, although I am not surprised since we have long known from earlier experiences that Fischer is one of the greatest living interpreters of The Rite of Spring, and his orchestra is worthy of him in every respect. Still, it is astonishing to hear this extraordinary rendition and we are left in a stupor of silence when it ends. And how did we feel when, after all that, the orchestra stood up and, metamorphosing into a chorus, faced us with yet another Stravinsky in the encore, after the Jewish and the pagan, this time the Christian, singing Ave Maria clearly and with devotion? I am lost for words to describe it.

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