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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Concert Review: The Rising Force

The Budapest Festival Orchestra takes Carnegie Hall.
Budapest Festival Orchestra conductor Iván Fischer.
This year the Budapest Festival Orchestra has built a strong reputation with New York audiences. Last spring, Iván Fischer's band roared through The Rite of Spring.  Last summer, they offered a compelling, fully-staged Don Giovanni at Mostly Mozart. Saturday night's concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring the music of Bartók and Schubert only added to that legacy.

Mr. Fischer chose an unusual seating arrangement for his players. Woodwinds were placed at the front, with the principal oboe in front of the concertmaster. All the bassists used five-string instruments. They were dead center, behind the brass. Other players moved around depending on which piece was being played.

The program opened with a Bartók rarity: settings of Hungarian Peasant Songs. These works were played with firm brass tones (especially from the trombones) and delicate, playful work from the oboe and clarinet. The tuba, moved to the front for these pieces enjoyed great prominence. Following what seems to be a trend among orchestras this year, Mr. Fischer had his violins and violas play these songs standing up.

The orchestra was joined by soloist András Schiff for Bartók's Second Piano Concerto. Mr. Schiff remains a sublime pianist, bringing out the lyric beauty in Bartok's high-speed, staccato keyboard figures and displaying a smooth legato. The solo part seemed to spill from his fingers in the slow second movement, accompanied by Mr. Fischer with a delicate, pointillist beauty. It's not surprising that these two Hungarian musicians work in a smooth tandem--they recorded all three Bartók concertos together for Teldec. Moreover, they were at school together.

Mr. Schiff held the Hall rapt in the last movement. His hands fluttered and dove over the keyboard, at one point bouncing out the melody in the high register with his right as his left raced up the lower regions. It was stunning playing, met with an enthusiastic reception. The soloist obliged the adulation with a pair of encores: a Schubert Impromptu and Liszt's lyrical Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5.

Schubert's Ninth Symphony sat in a drawer at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna for a decade. In 1838, ten years after Schubert's death, it was shown to composer/critic Robert Schumann. Dubbed the "Great" Symphony, the Ninth has since become an orchestra standard, the most popular Schubert symphony besides the "Unfinished."

Mr. Fischer's interpretation did much to blow the dust from this well-traveled score. Schubert's innovative combination of wind, horns and trombone stands at the core of this work, and Mr. Fischer's choice to move the winds forward led to a superbly balanced sound. 

A noble, searching horn theme started the first movement, taken here at a slightly fast pace. Mr. Fischer maintained this momentum through the work, letting the eloquence of Schubert's echoing conversation between winds and strings speak for itself. The climax of the opening movement surged with joy and power that belied the composer's dire last years. 

The two dance movements, a fleet-footed Andante and joyful Scherzo also featured expert playing from the Budapest winds. Mr. Fischer drew extra reserves of power for the final Allegro, bringing the argument of this long symphony to a giddy climax. The last phrases, with staccato trumpets and stomping tuba sounded like a happy round dance, a rustic celebration in the tradition of Beethoven's Sixth.

The orchestra ended with what Mr. Fischer announced as their traditional encore: a cheerful and very Hungarian dance. It was a strong end to a solid program, another feather in the cap for this excellent, innovative and rapidly rising European orchestra.

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