Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer at Carnegie Hall – Schubert’s Great C major Symphony – András Schiff plays Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.2

Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs [orch. composer: selection of 8 from 9]
Piano Concerto No.2
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

András Schiff (piano)

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 29 October, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Iván Fischer. Photograph: Budapest Festival OrchestraThis concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra included some unconventional interpretations of Bartók and Schubert, but even before the music began the players were seated in a rather unorthodox fashion (with woodwinds and some brass positioned in front of the strings) and went through an unusual, but sophisticated, tuning ritual. The resulting balances proved exemplary, however, with the winds indeed more prominent.

Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs (Bartók orchestrated nine of the Fifteen originally for piano, 6 thru 12 and 14 & 15) were played with the antiphonal violinists standing, enabling their instruments to carry a bit more than in the remainder of the program. Iván Fischer and his musicians brought more than the usual folk inflection to the eight sections. Often, the merriment of the melodies contrasted with the pungent scoring and individual instrumental sound, lending plenty of bite to the tunes and their rhythmically robust accompaniments.

Oddly, that bite was largely absent from Piano Concerto No.2, but this was mostly due to András Schiff’s interpretative direction. I’ve never heard a more lyrical, cantabile approach to this work, but it completely failed to convince in the outer movements, especially robbing the opening one of forward momentum. The second movement though offered a larger-than-usual helping of misterioso atmosphere, and there was lacerating articulation in the central Presto. Balances tended to favor the lower strings, and accents didn’t carry much rhythmic sizzle. This was a pretty daring misfire – but one with solid, assured playing. Schiff’s two Schubert encores – the E flat Impromptu (from D899), whose gentle, even flow ended with surprisingly strong vehemence, and an almost Brahmsian Ungarische Melodie (D817) – more than compensated for the unorthodox Bartók.

Fischer has very strong views on Schubert’s ‘Great C major’ Symphony. Tempos throughout were faster than customary, and although dynamic markings were followed scrupulously, repeats were completely omitted. I’m not so sure about many of the individualistic touches to phrasing, articulation, and exaggerated Mengelbergian tempo shifts – but I was impressed by the precision and evocative mood with which they were executed. The scherzo sounded at turns like early Bruckner and full-blown Strauss right down to the big ritardandos. The swift finale not only showcased the thrilling precision of the BFO’s strings but the gratifying blend of both the woodwind and brass. The coda was delivered with as much excitement – and a lot more fire – than I have heard in a very long time. After so strong an ending, I was surprised that Fischer offered an encore – an exuberant performance of the ‘Dance of the Urog Swineherds’ from Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches.

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