Budapest Festival Orchestra

Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op.34a
Violin Concerto No.2
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 18 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Iván Fischer. Photograph: Budapest Festival OrchestraLast year Gramophone magazine ranked the Budapest Festival Orchestra as the ninth best (the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra topped the poll, and the top-placed British one was the London Symphony Orchestra, at fourth), a remarkable achievement for this almost-wholly-Hungarian band, given that the BFO was formed as recently as 1983. Iván Fischer – co-founder of the BFO with Zoltán Kocsis – remains as Music Director.

To begin the evening, some wonderful tuning – a Bach Chorale (Puer natus in Bethlehem) played by the woodwinds. At the end of every line there was a slight pause for the ‘real’ tuning. Then the Leader tuned the rest of the orchestra in the ‘normal’ way; Fischer asks why oboes are used.

The concert opened with Prokofiev’s orchestration of his Overture on Hebrew Themes (originally for clarinet, piano and string quartet). Gypsy dances were summoned by the clarinet (given prime position next to Fischer), and the typical idea of Jewish folk-music, and then taken up by the bassoon and other wind instruments.

Leonidas Kavakos. Photograph: Yannis BourniasThere followed an exceptional account of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto, a piece dominated by extremes of emotions, and here given intense expression through Leonadis Kavakos’s bountiful musicality and his innate understanding of the piece’s struggles and contrasts. Kavakos’s sound was immediate, with Fischer with the BFO ideal accompanists. The intimate soundworld of the central movement worked surprisingly well in this cavernous hall. If the finale sagged a little, despite a furious opening, the brass was able to heighten the agitation, the closing minutes had inexorable sweep and thrilling drive.

What we know as Dvořák’s great Seventh Symphony was the second of his to be published; the manuscript’s title page said “Sixth Symphony”. Fischer summoned beyond the the cliché of this being a Brahmsian symphony. He effortlessly sewed the opening movement’s themes into the listener’s mind; after a weighty opening (double basses in ideal formation lined across the back of the platform), weaving together the dancing passages with the darker sections to ensure a breathtaking climax. Appositely, the opening of the Poco adagio was light on its feet, yet with eloquence.

A punchy opening to the scherzo – not too rushed, all wonderfully accented and balanced – allowed its cross-rhythms to flourish; in the graceful trio the glories of Dvořák’s scoring for woodwind was finely delivered. The finale brooded and drove forward, Fischer pulling out the movement’s tragic drama before final victory, which though dashed off, was hard-won; surely the point.

“There is no more serious music left to play”, said Fischer introducing the enocre, Johann Strauss II’s Bauern-Polka (Peasants’ Polka, Opus 276) … maybe an audition on Fischer’s part to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year concert!

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