Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer (31 January)

Liszt/Doppler
Hungarian Rhapsody No.1
Liszt
Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust
Wagner
Die Walküre – Act 3, Scene 3

Brünnhilde – Petra Lang
Wotan – John Tomlinson

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 31 January, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Liszt’s purely orchestral works are not heard with any degree of frequency, so it was particularly appropriate that the Budapest Festival Orchestral should precede a slice of Wagner with music by his father-in-law, especially as their respective musical languages share a number of features.

Franz Doppler’s orchestration of one of Liszt’s piano works (No.14 in Liszt’s numbering) was given a performance of considerable fire and panache. A bravura display on the cimbalom, by an enthusiastic Oszkár Okrós, set things in motion. These cadenza-like passages, requiring remarkable virtuosity, were offset by orchestral playing of enviable precision and a knife-edge response to the skilful direction of Iván Fischer. There were some string passages whose rubato and in-built pauses would tax any orchestra that was not en rapport with its conductor. Here they were given with complete unanimity, this close liaison a feature of the concert.

Liszt’s musical depiction of Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust is very different from the source (Goethe) which inspired his Faust Symphony and, indeed, Berlioz who introduced Liszt to the legend. These scenes form a well-contrasted pairing – The Night-Time Procession and The Dance at the Village Inn – the latter better (and independently) known as Mephisto Waltz No.1. This is programme music par excellence, with Liszt following closely the details of the scenario, including bird-song, the gloom forest, the melancholic hero, and other typically Romantic attributes.

Liszt always seems to be more at home depicting the darker side of things, than the religiosity that eventually dominates the first Episode. The plainsong melody (Tantum ergo) engulfs the orchestra before the music returns to the darkness from which it emerged. Its initial statement on cor anglais was most beautifully and expressively played – as were all the individual wind solos, with a piccolo (aptly) shrill and penetrating. The brass in full cry were also well-honed, but with a not inappropriate hint of steel in its corporate statement of the chorale-like plainsong. Fischer was successful in maintaining interest at moments when Liszt’s inspiration appears to hang fire, although the ever-inventive orchestration is a constant attraction in itself. The Dance at the Village Inn followed immediately, with some vigorous bowing from the lower strings, the whole ensemble responding to Fischer’s dynamic, thrustful conducting, bringing Liszt’s depiction of devilish dancing vividly to life.

The start of the great final scene of Wagner’s Die Walküre momentarily felt slightly incongruous, shorn as it was of the preceding drama, with the Ride of the Valkyries followed by the angry arrival of Wotan and his dismissal of his warrior-daughters, but the orchestra set the mood and tone admirably, and one was soon caught up in this affecting dialogue between father and daughter, leading to one of the most poignant of musical farewells.

To sing Sieglinde and Brünnhilde is not a feat to be undertaken lightly, and to sing the parts on successive evenings might be deemed unwise. But the feisty Petra Lang was quite unfazed, and her dark-toned initial utterances were characteristic of a carefully thought out interpretation. She certainly has the vocal resources for much of the part in this particular scene, lacking only the freedom to soar ecstatically in the higher register, but whether she would be wise to undertake the whole role is another matter. In this concerted context, she was convincing and effective in her heartfelt pleas to her angry father.

John Tomlinson has been a fine Wotan for some considerable time now, most notably in two Bayreuth productions. Now looking positively Nordic, his voice has acquired a profundity and gravitas, which is wholly, appropriate for the part. His capitulation from anger and indignation into resignation, and finally acceding to Brünnhilde’s entreaty to surround her prison-rock with fire, conveyed the all-too-human characteristics of the King of the Gods with distinction.

Although they never actually sing together, Lang and Tomlinson interacted with one another so convincingly that all the emotional weight of this remarkable scene was apparent. In this, the singers were aided most sympathetically by Fischer, who found just the right tempos for most of the time – a moment of hurrying after the start of Wotan’s “Leb’ wohl” was disconcerting – and the orchestra was magnificent, not least the massive brass pronouncement towards the end. The Budapest Festival Orchestra, scrupulously rehearsed and relishing the music, contributed to a thoroughly engrossing and rewarding concert.

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