sábado, julio 18, 2015

The Budapest Festival Orchestra: a four-year treat

            Every four years since 2003 the Mozarteum Argentino brings us the Budapest Festival Orchestra, probably the best in Hungary. It is an admirable and rewarding habit. Their two concerts with different programmes will surely remain as high points of this season.

            About thirty years ago this orchestra was founded by conductor Iván Fischer and pianist-turned-conductor Zoltán Kocsis. Fischer has remained  its Principal Conductor, a surprisingly long tenure in these times. He has been PC of the National Symphony, Washington; and he is currently director of the Berlin Konzerthaus and of its Orchestra.

            Fischer is a man of innovative ideas, and this was more in evidence during this visit. First, the disposition of the orchestra: I have never seen before the basses  placed on a high platform smack in the back center of the stage; nor in the second concert that the harp would be placed exactly in the middle of them, so that some relevant notes would be clearly audible.    

            Furthermore, in the first concert the clarinet first desk played close to the conductor in Prokofiev´s Overture on Hebrew melodies, for it has almost at the beginning the lead in a characteristic klezmer tune. And  all the woodwind players brought their chairs and music stands in front of the piano in Ravel´s  Concerto, as this is indeed a work with numerous meaningful solos for these instruments and they were brought into sharp relief.

            Furthermore, they tune by groups and according to a different reference tone, not with the traditional oboe A; and they sound perfectly well. The players exude solidarity among them, a rare chamber feeling in a full symphony orchestra. And they evidently love their conductor, who has had such a long and fruitful partnership with them. The organism isn´t huge, at least as they appeared in this tour: 77 artists. The level is high throughout, but I will mention four players that seemed to me absolutely top: the concertino Violetta Eckhardt, Philippe Tondre (oboe), Jeremy Sassano (English horn) and Ákos Ács (clarinet).

            Decades ago Georgian pianist Alexander Toradze came to BA and I was impressed then by the power and exactitude of his mechanism. This time I had no doubt about his marvelous dexterity but I felt quite differently about his interpretations. Whilst I liked his Ravel a lot (scintillating precision in the fast movements and great singability in the Mozartian slow one) I was flabbergasted by his enormous licenses of speed and inflexions in the one-movement Prokofiev First Concerto.

            It isn´t only that I have long been accustomed to the reference recordings of Andor Foldes and Sviatoslav Richter, but I had occasion to analyze the score deeply when it was a chosen work in one of the Argerich competitions, for I was part of the jury. I love this so-called "savage" piece of the young Prokofiev but there´s order in the apparent improvisation, and the speed and phrasing markings must be observed.

            One good thing about both concerts is that they offered a lot of music: about 95 minutes in each against the habitual 75 to 80. Two bad things: a) the encores were unacceptable: in the first concert Fischer had a lamentably demagogic idea: instead of playing, the musicians uncovered big sheets of paper and sang a capella the tango "Por una cabeza"! And I´m sorry to say, about half the audience broke into frantic applause. On the second concert, as I saw that the players did the same, I left (I was told that this time it was a Brahms song, a less irritating choice but still wrong). b) There was ill-timed clapping after the first movement of the Ravel, and Fischer applauded along, giving them reason!

            But the music was great and that´s what matters most. Prokofiev´s Overture on hebrew themes is the 1934 orchestration of a piece written originally for sextet (1920) and it is a charming score of imaginative and personal writing, rarely heard. The lovely "Pavane for a deceased infanta" is Ravel at his most refined. Both works were played before the Concerti. The latter were played, so to say, according to the soloist: the Prokofiev felt wild in the wrong way, but the Ravel was exquisite, witty and exhilarating.

            After the interval, one of the very best interpretations I have heard of Brahms´ Fourth Symphony showed that Fischer is a redoubtable conductor. Perfectly weighed tempi and amazingly subtle phrasing plus all the needed power.

            The second concert  started with a welcome performance of Bartók´s "Hungarian sketches" ("Magyar képek"), a 1931 skilled orchestration of five piano pieces from different earlier works; of course, it was impeccably done. Then, that testamental masterpiece, Richard Strauss´ "Four Last Songs",  was the vehicle for the Argentine debut of the young Swedish soprano Miah Persson, who is having a fine career as a Mozart-Strauss singer. She has a nice sweet voice that expands in high, long-held notes but is rather weak in the lows; the interpretation didn´t extract the most from the lovely Hesse and Eichendorff texts, and the timbre, whilst agreeable, doesn´t sound unmistakeable. But the music flowed beautifully from Fischer´s hands.

            The Mahler Fourth was marvelous, perhaps the best I have heard in concert, with ideal give-and-take and adaptation for its constant changes. Persson sang pleasantly the Angel´s ingenuous final song. The orchestra reigned supreme. What a heart-warming world this symphony contains! 

For Buenos Aires Herald 

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