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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Concert Review: Budapest Festival Orchestra Straddles Two Centuries

The 18th and 20th centuries clashed at last night's concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra--with sexy results.
Iván Fischer
On Tuesday night, the orchestra explored the dichotomy between the genteel "classical" works of Franz Josef Haydn and the rough-and-tumble modernism of Igor Stravinsky. Iván Fischer, the kinetic Hungarian maestro who founded the orchestra 27 years ago, conducted.

The Haydn works found the orchestra in period instrument mode. The brass section used slide trumpets and natural horns, complete with replaceable crooks. Timpanist Dénes Roland sat at a small pair of period kettledrums, playing with wooden sticks. The Haydn Symphony No. 102 sprang to life, a work filled with genteel, yet earthy good humor. Crisp rhythms, warm strings and a bright contribution from the winds made this a distinguished performance.

The Piano Concerto No. 11 was written for an 18th century pianoforte. However, this performance pitted a modern Steinway (played by Alexei Lubimov) on a modern Steinway against the period band. Mr. Lubimov made the case for this anachronistic arrangement with fleet-fingered legato playing, and elegant turns of phrase. The final, rondo had an almost manic energy, as the orchestra supported Mr. Lubimov through every twist and turn of the work.

The full orchestra filled the stage for a raucous reading of The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky's 1913 ballet is one of the cultural touchstones of the 20th century, a thundering, violent work that depicts the barbaric pagan rites of ancient Russia. Under Mr. Fischer's direction, the taut polyrhythms and blasts of brass acquired a fearsome, battering force, hammering at the senses in a frenzied dance.

A reprieve came with the second section of the ballet, but it was not to last. The quieter moments, featuring the elegaic horns (now playing modern instruments), lengthy bassoon solos and muttered honks on the bass clarinets. These gave way to the final, sacrificial dance, driven to an earth-shattering conclusion as Mr. Fischer exhorted his musicians to new heights of aural savagery.

To close the concert, Mr. Fischer returned and led his band in a work from the 19th century: the 21st (and last) of Brahms' Hungarian Dances. Shot through with rhythms of their homeland, the Brahms work served as a pleasant, high-energy palate cleanser after the controlled brutality of the Stravinsky: a fitting way to end this New York appearance by this excellent, underrated orchestra.

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