Proms 63: Budapest Festival Orchestra

There have been some fabulous Proms this season — the Verdi Requiem and South Indian Prom are still fresh in my memory. But, for sheer blinding energy, nothing has come anywhere near the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s two Proms on Saturday night.

Much of that energy came from the wiry, balding figure on the podium. This was Ivan Fischer, who founded the orchestra in the teeth of official opposition in the Communist era, and is still its music director. He doesn’t shape the music through gesture so much as impersonate it with his whole body, and the orchestra responds in kind.

We saw that quality most vividly in the late Audience Choice concert. The orchestra was now in civvies for an informal event, in which the audience chose pieces by picking raffle numbers.

When the system failed, Fischer threw a cuddly toy into the crowd, saying “whoever catches that can choose” (he’s a natural compère on top of his other talents). Dance pieces won the day, and each one brought out Fischer’s special manner of moulding a gesture: louche and slinky for Stravinsky’s Tango, poised and perfectly Viennese in Strauss’s Music of the Spheres, fierce in Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances.

All this was irresistible, but definitely on a lower level of intensity than the first concert. Which was probably just as well. If the excitement of the first concert had gone for another minute, there would have been swooning in the aisles. The pounding of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz made it seem as if the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse were about to burst through the plush red curtains, but even that was topped when young Hungarian pianist Dejan Lazic came on to play Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death). Lazic played up to its show-off quality, making the huge octave leaps seem even riskier than they actually were – a trick the composer would surely have approved.

Finally, in Mahler’s First Symphony, Fischer’s gift for bringing out the physicality of music took on a more profound hue. Here his eye was fixed on long-range goals, when long digressions were clinched in a single image. The result, in the finale, was an overwhelming sense of a weight being shouldered and finally thrown off. Gesture took on meaning, and mere excitement was turned into exaltation.

Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph
9 May 2011


As for the dynamic Fischer and his players, it is equally rare to hear a conductor achieving such spectacular results with such apparently small effort.
Anthony Holden, The Observer, November 20, 2005.

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