Prom 4 – Budapest Festival Orchestra

The Creatures of Prometheus – Overture
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Stephen Hough (piano)

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The culture and refinement of the Budapest Festival Orchestra is unmistakable. There are also some Slavonic tendencies. Note ’some’. Iván Fischer, usually musical to a fault, can be a tad cavalier – Rachmaninov wanted double basses alone to close his second symphony’s first movement (which works), so Fischer adding a timpani stroke here (he’s not alone) was a vulgar solecism. This took the edge off a very fine performance, one that mercifully got away from presenting Rachmaninov just as the composer of ’big tunes’, plush sonorities and straight structures.

Although Fischer could have gone further, he did at least tap into Rachmaninov’s volatility. A few punches pulled lost some drama, certainly in the first movement development. The slow introduction ideally presaged Rachmaninov’s pensive world, the ardour ingrained rather than applied and with a phrasal flexibility that was always directional. There was no malaise and this was no CV from a budding film composer. The highlight was the relatively swift ’Adagio’, an impromptu clarinet solo setting the scene and leading to a magical oasis of calm just before the close. Some of Rachmaninov’s miscalculations were made manifest though, his ’gurgling’ horn scoring being one, a ’colour’ he all too easily abused, and I wonder if the BFO might like to invest in a new glockenspiel; the present instrument is curiously dead-sounding. For the record, Fischer played the symphony complete, exposition repeat aside. Its omission convinced.

Radio 3 listeners were denied the encore. They were fortunate – a noisy romp through Johann Strauss II’s Eljen a Magyar! This music is too good to be so cheapened – effects exaggerated and unsolicited cymbal clashes, although Fischer does bring out a reference to Berlioz like no other conductor!

Beethoven’s brief (ballet) overture was the token Greek entry – which might have been an opportunity to sample a couple of the other movements – and demonstrated the orchestra’s perky woodwinds and unanimous strings; that said, buoyant rhythms aside, a slightly less hectic pace would have found more of the music. The Brahms was disappointing. Stephen Hough was a bit splashy, of little import in itself, but he didn’t help himself in the bullish way he attacked the finale. He rarely appeared engaged. The ’Adagio’ seemed unbearably slow, although the stopwatch denies this. It certainly didn’t tread hallowed ground. Fleeting moments of illumination invariably came from the orchestra, mostly to do with Fischer’s clarifying of motifs (his use of antiphonal violins, as throughout the evening, helped), yet some fussiness elsewhere was distracting. A Brahms first piano concerto without heroism and profundity is rather heavy going.

That moment of crassness aside, the Rachmaninov is well worth catching on the Radio 3 repeat.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Wednesday 23 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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