Great Performers 2000/1 – Great Orchestras of the World

Hungarian Sketches
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor Op.37
Symphony No.7 in D minor

Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer
with Richard Goode (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 18 February, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It’s always a treat to hear Slavonic orchestras play Slavonic music. In their baggage they always bring both gypsy and mystic qualities – they jump effortlessly in and out of dance rhythms, their wind and brass tone has an unfamiliar edge – brown cane sugar rather than white refined – their violins play as if their hearts, worn on their sleeves, were resonating against their instruments. To this, the Budapest Festival Orchestra added a precision of ensemble, a sense of wit and irony, and a lightness of touch, which would have been admirable even in a much smaller band.

This combination was ideal for Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, perhaps his most classical and rigorous. Ivan Fischer kept a tight grip on structure – witness the beautifully shaped conclusions to the first two movements – but gave sufficient attention to detail and space to make us aware of the raw passion under the academic correctness. You felt, as in one episode of the slow movement, or at the start of the scherzo (surely the most lilting moment in all Dvorak), that at any moment the orchestra might leap up and dance about the stage. And yet, as with the outer movements’ lyrical second subjects, Fischer also showed his ability to make the orchestra play with an entirely convincing urbanity and restraint and move seamlessly between very different moods and emotions, to tame his orchestra like Orpheus with his animals, and then unleash them for the triumphant finale. A special mention for the intense flute solos of Gabriella Pivon, who also duetted most sensitively with Richard Goode in the Beethoven.

The orchestra was very much on home-ground for Bartok’s slight but significant Hungarian Sketches, music again perfectly integrating folk elements, in which the Orchestra could display its high spirits and sense of humour, notably in the rumbustious Bear Dance and the self-explanatory Slightly Tipsy.

For Beethoven Fischer and the orchestra showed their sensitive, civilised side. Richard Goode’s interpretation was predominantly lyrical, the passagework delivered with a grace and fluency that recalled the work’s ancestry in (and Goode’s own renowned interpretations of) Mozart’s concertos. Goode’s silvery pianissimo tone, the poise and self-possession of his playing, and his desire to make an authentic sound within the capabilities of the modern piano – all these combined for a classical view. However, Goode gave proper emphasis to the contrasted moments of dramatic tension and aspiration – reminding us that the work very much looks forward also, to the Emperor, and played the first movement cadenza with magisterial control. An exemplary performance but with a few moments when the balance between a deliberately restrained soloist and a slightly over-enthusiastic orchestra masked the clarity of the piano figurations.

The BFO’s two encores encapsulated the orchestra’s virtues – a deft Mozart March described by the conductor as “somewhat satirical” and the First Brahms Hungarian Dance played with an unashamed devotion to romantic extravagance, full of string slides and percussive flourishes, which sent the audience into the night “slightly tipsy” on this brew of Slavonic passion.

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