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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Concert Review: Business As Unusual

The Budapest Festival Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Man and baton: Budapest Festival Orchestra music director Iván Fischer
in a pensive moment. Photo © 2015 Budapest Festival Orchestra/Channel Classics.

Founded in 1983, the Budapest Festival Orchestra is a relatively recent addition to the ranks of central Europe's great ensembles. Under the direction of Iván Fischer, these Hungarian players always offer something fresh, from Lincoln Center stagings of the great Mozart operas to powerhouse readings of the great works of the 19th and 20th century. On Thursday night, the Hungarian band returned to Carnegie Hall for a conventional concert program (overture, concerto, symphony) that proved, in its execution to be anything but ordinary.

The players walked onto the stage, seating themselves in an unusual configuration. The four horn players were split into pairs, and stood with their instruments on opposite sides of the wind section. The tuba sat apart from the other brass, squarely in the middle of the double basses. Finally Mr. Fischer came out and the orchestra launched into the Overture to Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz, a 19th-century German singspiel that (for good or ill) inspired the operatic career of one Richard Wagner.

The hushed tones of basses and cellos led to the first horn calls, played piano over the swelling orchestration. Then the violins launched the thrilling main theme, a bustling, energetic figure that captures the rude vitality of this piece. Meanwhile, the four horns repositioned themselves, forming a phalanx at stage right to deliver the great fanfare that marks the climactic moment of this overture. If Mr. Fischer chooses to move beyond Mozart in his opera stagings in New York, Der Freischütz wouldn't be a bad choice.

Next, the orchestra was joined by Marc-Andre Hamelin, the virtuoso pianist known for his fearless explorations of  difficult music by composers who lie outside the standard canon. Here, Mr. Hamelin was playing a more mainstream, but still demanding work: the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Franz Liszt. The opening seven-note theme went off like a cannon shot, seeming to hang in the air as the piano made its entrance. Liszt (who labored for decades on this work) demands not just technical flash but the presence of the piano as equal partner with the orchestra, making the soloist and conductor's respective jobs all the more demanding.

Not that there wasn't technical flash. Mr. Hamelin offered a display of right-hand trills and florid fioratura, racing up and down the keys. Occasionally the orchestra led with a new idea but it was the piano that served as the prime mover here, drawing out Liszt's remarkable technical structure of four movements that flow smoothly from pone to the next and climax with the force of white-water rapids. Mr. Hamelin played the slow parts with liquid ease before returning to the fireworks display of the final movement.Mr. Hamelin then returned for a Liszt encore. This was the composer’s transcription of the Chopin song "My Darling" transcribed by Liszt. Here, Mr. Hamelin retained the pure thread of the original melody while adding Liszt's contribution like an extra skein of gaudy thread.

The second half of the concert featured Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, which has remained the most popular of the Soviet composer's seven utterances in that genre since its premiere in 1944. Written to celebrate the spirit of mankind and performed as the tide had finally turned on the Eastern Front, this symphony may be seen as something of a Socialist Realist answer to the "wartime" symphonies of Shostakovich: the Seventh and the Eighth. It is bold, brassy and buoyant, and remains popular with audiences as a stentorian example of Prokofiev's later style.

The Budapest players' performance offered a heavy assault of horns and trombones, balanced with delicate and profound utterances from the choir of wood-winds. The positioning of the contrabass tuba among the growling basses proved advantageous in the first movement, as the main theme surged to life in a slow introduction that built itself into a proper Sonata Allegro. Prokofiev's dark humor can be heard in the fairground Scherzo, and the Andante was a long slow climb to a brassy dawn. The finale ended in a blaze of sound, bringing the audience to their feet in a testament to this work's enduring popularity. Finally, unconventional as ever, Mr. Fischer and his ensemble offered an a cappella encore. The orchestra stood, held sheet music and sang a ravishing performance of an ancient Russian Orthodox church theme. Again, it was anything but ordinary. 

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