Prom 38: Audience Choice @ the BBC Proms

Overture: ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila’
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36 (First Movement)
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (Second Movement)
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70 (Third Movement)
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 ‘Scottish’ (Fourth Movement)
Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer 

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 13 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Although they have been regular visitors since 1992, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and its indefatigable co-founder and conductor Iván Fischer didn’t introduce their trademark ‘Audience Choice’ concert to the Proms until a late-night concert towards the end of the 2011 Season on 2 September, after an early evening concert that had ended in Mahler’s First Symphony.  It’s taken them twelve years to return to the idea, even more ideally placed as a Sunday afternoon matinée sandwiched between two evening concerts.

The format remains much the same, with a few refinements. Instead of previously, when everyone was given a raffle ticket and audience members picked out lucky numbers to identify work pickers, this afternoon Jószef Bazsinka’s spare tuba was filled with chitties listing every seat number sold. Each round, members of the orchestra picked three out and handed them to Fischer who then read it out and asked the seat-holders to choose one of the 275 works printed in the programme, from which a show of hands (and every louder cheering) would determine the winner. Another difference this time was that Fischer wanted to create a ‘unique’ symphony, so the initial four choices were limited 161 works (or movements) listed under ‘Symphonies’ – though they also included the two parts of The Rite of Spring.

First though was Radio 3’s choice to open the concert: listeners had voted from a choice of three and the result was sealed in a blue envelope, the players expectant and librarian Tibor Gátay poised to plunder his library laid out under the Royal Albert Hall risers.  The winner was… Glinka’s Ruslan und Lyudmila overture; coincidentally, one of the audience choices in 2011.  While Gátay busied away distributing parts, Fischer organised the trio who would choose the first movement of the symphony, before turning about to bring the orchestra in. The Overture received a spirited if somewhat scrappy rendition, as the musicians played their way in to the piece on no rehearsal.

Musically things settled down very quickly in the resultant first choice for a first movement: Tchaikovsky’s Fourth sweeping away competition from Mahler’s First and Dvořák’s Ninth, horn and bassoon opening fanfares leading to a detailed and convincing rendition which made me hear the work afresh.  Before the Tchaikovsky we had heard a Shostakovich violin duo, to cover the bestowing of parts, after Fischer had organised the next trio from around the hall who would suggest their second symphonic movement suggestions.

Perhaps it was not surprising that Haydn’s Hen and Oxford Symphonies were left overshadowed by the eventual winner, Beethoven’s Pastoral, before which we had some Klezmer music led by two clarinettists.  Fischer could obviously foresee a problem – pointing out that the Beethoven ‘is another long piece’ – but the performance of the Scene by the Brook was lovingly moulded.  The third movement was clearly Dvořák’s Seventh (over Schubert’s Third or Mozart’s 25th), with a hors d’oeuvre of Hungarian folk music for violin, viola and double bass, which went on for longer that Fischer clearly wanted. Dvořák’s Scherzo was also subtly curtailed so we could move swiftly on to the finale choice, Mendelssohn’s Scottish beating off Dvořák’s Ninth and Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony No 5 (not a finale, as Fischer noted, but still a fourth movement…).  A snatch of sung Monteverdi, with tambourine and drum accompaniment, covered the distribution of parts and, again, Fischer filleted the Scottish finale to just the final build up and peroration (without the individual sections standing up as I understand they had done in the full performance on Saturday night).

Which left only an encore: ‘We only have five minutes’ Fischer remarked as he threw a ball into the Arena, the one to catch it would give the first encore choice and they were to throw the ball on (after some urgent exhortation from the podium). Fischer’s expression dropped with the second and third suggestions – Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No 2 and Milhaud’s La Boeuf sur la toit – and used his discretion to ‘open up’ the floor to shorter works.  I would have loved to hear the original first suggestion – the March from Prokofiev’s Love For Three Oranges – but we eventually, after a quickly wound up small-scale jazz version of Tea for Two, went with Brahms’ Fifth Hungarian Dance.

For all the rushed nature of trying to shoe the whole programme into 75 minutes, this format democratises classical music like no other format, and I can’t imagine any other orchestra, conductor, or orchestral librarian could do it.  On top of that the musical performances were, a few early smudges aside, exemplary in spirit as well as musicality.  In an interview printed in the Proms Prospectus and repeated in the evening programme, Fischer stated that he loves the Proms because of its “unconventional audience”. It’s a perfect match for his unconventional orchestra: the love is reciprocated, and it was great to see both orchestra and conductor in the 40th anniversary year of the partnership and hopefully they’ll soon be back, bringing classical music to life in a way no other orchestra can.

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