Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer in Royal Festival Hall with Stephen Hough [Oxford & Pastoral symphonies plus Liszt]

Symphony No.92 in G (Oxford)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Stephen Hough (piano)

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 16 January, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Iván Fischer. Photograph: Budapest Festival OrchestraHungarian political and cultural triumphalism – this year marks Hungary’s presidency of the EU council (good luck) and the bicentenary of Liszt’s birth – were celebrated in high style in London (courtesy of “Shell Classic International”) by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and its founder-conductor Iván Fischer.

A mere stripling of 27 years, the BFO has established itself as one of the major-league bands, a status to which this concert bore eloquent witness. The Haydn symphony – the lovely, jolly ‘Oxford’ – showed off the musicians’ easy but flawless ensemble and chamber-music rapport, with lithe string-playing encouraging their inimitable and characterful wind soloists. Rasping horns and natural trumpets gave the Minuet some bracingly earthy weight, and the Trio presented Haydn’s inexhaustible originality at its freshest. With a sublimely meditative Adagio and rhythmically skittish finale, this was a performance that made you fall in love with Haydn all over again – full of style, high musical intelligence and undying affection.

Stephen Hough. ©Grant HiroshimaStephen Hough’s broad, inquisitive musicianship needs no further praise, but his Liszt is particularly special. The music’s Olympian self-assurance, high rhetoric and heart-on-sleeve romanticism is perfectly complemented by Hough’s fabulous technique – the sort of technique that makes things look easy – and an unfussy but aristocratic showmanship, which reminds you that in this sort of music, soloists, like rich people, are different. His insouciant bravura was thrilling, clear and articulate, the notes unfolding with improvisatory directness and, towards the end, unveiling a gift of a prolonged trill of enviable evenness. It really was like hearing this barnstormer of a piano concerto for the first time, and the encore of Liszt’s tiny Andantino only put Hough’s achievement into perspective.

In the same way that the deceptive simplicity of the first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata can faze some pianists, so the non-argumentative charms of Beethoven’s ’Pastoral’ can trip some conductors. The jokey placing of a tree in front of the conductor’s rostrum and the scattering of the all-important woodwind throughout the strings was a bit too cute, but the playing was something else. You could be forgiven for mistaking a conductor and his very own orchestra in popular repertoire as being on autopilot, and some of Fischer’s conducting verged on the quaintly gestural, but the result of their close relationship was purely and simply a delight – the carefree tone of the first movement always courting something concealed and majestic; the pleasures of a riverside reverie as refreshing as it was mysterious; a meteorologically vivid approach to the storm; and the hymn of thanksgiving – which always made my terrifying Austrian grandmother blub – a heart-stopping blend of high-art blending with folksy fondness. Two encores – a Brahms Hungarian Dance and a Strauss-family polka – couldn’t break the symphony’s magic spell.

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