Carl Maria von Weber
Overture, Der Freischütz
Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op. 54
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy
Symphony No. 3 in A-minor, Op. 56 (Scottish)
Sir András Schiff (piano)
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Reviewed by: Alexander Hall
Reviewed: 12 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall
It’s often a question of horses for courses. Faced with a programme of overture, concerto and symphony – one of the mainstays of concert programming until more recent times – and works drawn exclusively from the veins of German Romanticism, what would you choose to hear? Something measured, in perfect good taste, celebrating moderation and the structures of classical restraint? Or the wild and passionate urges that speak directly to the heart, the tingle that comes from blood racing through the body?
Now in its fortieth year after being founded by Iván Fischer, the Budapest Festival Orchestra has many fine characteristics. Here fielding a slightly reduced string complement, grounded on six double-basses, it impresses through a compact body of sound, clear articulation, and a capacity for allowing the music to breathe, never rushing its collective fences. That said, Fischer’s idiosyncrasies extend to orchestral layout. The double-basses were arraigned like sentinels at the back of the orchestra, with the timpani on the highest riser, antiphonal brass buried slightly below the woodwind, and for the overture a strange positioning of the quartet of horns to the left and right of the organ console (from which they then retreated for the rest of the concert). Nor is any Budapest concert these days complete without some singing: at the end of the concerto, with the soloist now acting as accompanist, it was the last of the four gypsy songs, Zigeunerlieder Op. 112b, dedicated to the “dear swallow, little swallow”, which Brahms wrote towards the end of his life in 1891.
It was Nikolaus Harnoncourt who compared Weber’s Der Freischütz overture to a quarry, “a great mine of block-like material from which the veins of the music extend as far as the Finale.” This was the music that was to inspire Richard Wagner; it needs to be a foreshadowing in symphonic terms of the drama to come. In Fischer’s hands there was a slow and weighty start, though the bass line never suggested anything remotely ominous (slightly boosted by BBC engineers in the sound transmission), an elegiac quality taking the place of spookiness and uncertainty, the trombones curiously reticent. Nor did the buttery horns add anything dramatic by dint of their elevated position – that was left to the over-emphatic timpani. Nothing else sounded out of place, the phrasing always beautifully manicured. And that was the problem: there was no real electricity.
Sir András Schiff and his compatriot are very old friends. It was therefore predictable that they and the orchestra would work together very effectively. At its best their performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto was akin to chamber-music. I felt I was listening to intimate Hausmusik within the confines of an ornate salon, eavesdropping on a musical conversation between well-mannered individual voices shirking all unruly interruptions and star turns. However, the work is unquestionably mercurial in mood, the call-to-arms, and cascades of notes at the start immediately commanding attention, the constant shifts between the Florestan and Eusebius sides of the composer’s character overcoming any sense of stasis.
Schiff’s playing was even-handed, with no hint of the left hand ever wanting to break free, no undue weight in the downward scales, the light pedalling allowing clear articulation, the trills at the end of the cadenza perfectly placed, the hairs of an elegant coiffure never once out of place. Even the suggestion of playfulness that Schiff found in the Finale was streets away from full-blooded impishness. One undoubted delight was the quality of the woodwind, evidenced through the many duets with the soloist, not least the superlative first clarinet, who also distinguished himself in the following symphony.
Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ symphony is the darkest-hued of the five that he wrote. Though the material derives from the composer’s trip through Caledonian landscapes in 1829, it expresses feelings rather than detailed events. In this regard it comes close to the character of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony. One unifying feature to all four movements – played without a break – is the presence of fanfares and march rhythms.
Fischer captured the sombre mood of the opening, the mottled greys of haunting twilight slightly offset by the sweet-toned strings. The serenity and tranquillity of the landscape was an overriding characteristic, storm clouds on the horizon signalled only by over-lively thwacks of the timpani. Yet I was struck by how close Fischer came to the sound-world of the composer’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pastel shades dominating both in the strings and woodwind.
His tempo for the Scherzo was on the steady side. No sense of exultation either as the movement drew to a close. Fischer’s love of classical restraint was also very palpable in the slow movement, where shafts of spring sunshine seemed to be slowly warming the earth and encouraging the vegetation to put out its finest livery. Mendelssohn’s original marking for the Finale was Allegro Guerriero, the strongest hint of a warlike gathering of the clans. Though the beautifully-turned string and woodwind playing conveyed the strength and majesty in the score, there was little indication of a fiery Romantic spirit rippling through these pages. In fact, I was reminded of the Scots word for dreary weather: dreich. Nor did it make any sense at all at the start of the coda to have the individual sections stand up, first the violas followed by second and first violins, with the four horns rising for their final peroration, and then the members of the woodwind. Mendelssohn’s sublime music does not need any gimmickry.