At the final applause of a Béla Bartók/Gustav Mahler symphony concert led by Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra at Teatro alla Scala, shouts echoed from the theater's clamorous loggione. However, unlike the expected outbursts of angst, ecstatic cries of “strepitoso” and “fantastico” rained down as well-deserved accolades for an evening of meticulous, intelligent music-making, encouraged by detailed soloists Miah Persson and Yefim Bronfman.
As part of La Scala's “International Festival for Orchestras” program that hosts worldwide musicians in symphonic concerts this season, the Hungarian orchestra presented a set-list that played to its various strengths – scintillating Bartók timbres and colorful Mahlerian outbursts under a unified orchestral thrust led by its Music Director, Iván Fischer.
As one of its original founders, Fischer has forged his orchestra into a super-precise, synchronized entity where passages ripple and swell into emotionally-unified waves. Sheer numbers and thunders of the orchestra are distilled into chamber-like charms, and tasteful argot is finely-tuned with conviction and refinement. Often, the innovative Hungarian maestro arranges his ranks into idiosyncratic knots, such as double basses relegated to the percussionists' domain and orchestra lips flanked by strings.
The evening bowed with Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches, five sweet, short piano compositions woven into orchestral arrangements, its first four inspired by Hungarian folksongs with a final movement adapted from a Swineherd’s Dance from Ürög.
Bronfman brought unaffected musicianship and clean, patterned fingers to Bartók's Piano Concerto no. 3 in E major, dedicated to the Hungarian composer's pianist wife, which was written in 1945 and premiered in 1946 after his death. With great intelligence, Bronfman's interpretation was well-sustained from its understated opening through its chilling finale over incisive strings and glowing woodwinds manicured to perfection.
The second half bowed with Mahler's Symphony no. 4 in G major. There was no surprise at the orchestra's mastery of the Bohemia-born composer's bittersweet emotions – the BFO-Fischer’s Mahler has been nominated for numerous awards, including the Grammys, notably the First and the Fifth. Fischer often speaks of the sweet fairytale charms and childish nature of the Fourth symphony with its crisp, opening sleigh bells affecting light, transparent clarities, uncharacteristic of Mahler’s incredibly tragic symphonies. To wit, Fischer cast brilliant, respectful, almost-Mozartian light onto somber shades, rendering darker movements as evaporating fogs. Even the timpani and brass at its most riotous colors had an understated, reined-in edge of tantrum.
French horn principal Zoltán Szőke moved to a soloist's chair for In gemächlicher Bewegung, spiriting other-worldly color and tranquility, before returning to his section for the Poco adagio bridge, tenderly blended with disarming woodwinds.
As the symphonic embers died-out, ageless Swedish soprano Miah Persson glided onto the stage in a pale-blue silk gown for the swiftly-paced fourth movement's Das Himmlische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with great poise, sentiment and color.
The BFO capped the evening with one if its trademark encores – a choral vignette of handpicked soloists that lay down instruments and sing the choir. Begun by Persson, a profound Laudate Dominum from Mozart's Vesperae solenne de confessore, KV339, ended a refined evening of the sacred and the profane.