Romanian Folk Dances
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
The Wooden Prince, Op.13
Richard Goode (piano)
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 12 November, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The final instalment of the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Bartók and Beethoven series – in which Richard Goode has given a complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos (good to hear that he will soon be recording these for Nonesuch), and Iván Fischer once again demonstrated his insight across the range of Bartók’s orchestral output. This concert opened with another of the suites that the composer adapted from piano pieces – the Romanian Folk Dances, arranged in 1917, and in which the piquancy of ‘In one spot’ and poetry of ‘Hornpipe’ were especially appealing amid the dances around them.
A ‘symphony with piano’ is how Beethoven¹s Fifth Piano Concerto often comes over in performance. All credit to Goode, then, for maintaining lightness of touch across the first movement’s sometimes heroic, sometimes ruminative course – his pianism both energetic and unaffected. The development initially seemed under-powered, but a breathless transition back to the opening gestures (slightly too emphatic as Fischer conceived them, but effective in context) underlined a conception that conveyed formal momentum whole. Goode perhaps underplayed the ‘non-cadenza’, but his overall muscularity of approach, along with agile playing from horns and trumpets, vividly re-affirmed the ‘Emperor’ spirit.
The Adagio’s sequence of variations was poetically rendered, Goode deftly capturing the vulnerability of the music behind its gentle pathos, and the finale was given with the right combination of boisterous humour and athletic vigour. Here, too, the left/right division of violins that Fischer favours paid dividends in reinforcing those antiphonal exchanges that give so many of Beethoven’s fast movements their cumulative velocity, concluding with a hushed account of the piano-and-timpani coda before the final orchestral flourish. Not necessarily radical Beethoven interpretation, but one which brought out the humanity motivating the work’s heroism in a way that recognised its intrinsic ‘greatness’: something not to be taken for granted in our overtly cynical age.
Bartók’s ballet The Wooden Prince was given a rare complete outing – ironic given that it was an equally rare success for the composer at its 1917 premiere. Criticised for the way that Bartók overlays Hungarian-inflected themes and rhythms with a Straussian harmonic opulence, the work emerged here with more astringency than usual: a tribute to Fischer’s sense of style that he resisted the invitation to unbridled orchestral hedonism and instead concentrated on the yearning quality informing the issue of communication – or otherwise! – between individuals which the heavily symbolist scenario itself conveys rather opaquely. And, though it is possible to imagine technically more immaculate performances, it is hard to envisage one where any stylistic incongruity is rendered less indulgent or self-satisfied; geared, instead, to a conception in which the work’s rather off-kilter symmetry and effortful motivic repetition serve an altogether more powerful expressive purpose. Surtitled captions were provided to help guide listener’s through the scenario of this still unfamiliar ballet, though the consistency and conviction of Fischer’s approach left little to chance. Whether or not he has conducted any staged productions, his control over the musical narrative was undoubted.
Fischer is not one to leave enthusiastic audiences without an encore, and he supplied another of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances (namely the Fifteenth in D minor) in his own orchestration. With its slow-burning sensuousness, it made for a thoughtful and understated ending to this very welcome series.