Budapest Festival Orchestra

The Arts Journal

Five Stars
Date: 26 August 2012 / Venue: Usher Hall

Iván Fischer, music director and co-founder of the Budapest Festival Orchestra

From the intimacy of Bartók’s merrymaking peasants to the epic scale of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s programme seemed designed to show off their many, diverse talents.

The orchestra began with a breezy journey to their native countryside with a delightful account of Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs, revealing the full, rich sound of the 58-strong string section.

Standing in for Joszef Lendvay, soloist Barnabás Kelemen’s first movement of Bartók’s First Violin Concerto, which the introverted Hungarian composer wrote as a love letter to the teenage violinist Stefi Geyer, was full of tenderness and bittersweet yearning. Kelemen returned for two showy encores; a Bach Sarabande and a brief, break-neck Paganini piece.

After the premiere of his Fifth Symphony, Mahler is reported to have complained that nobody understood it. Music director Iván Fischer, who co-founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983, has become a major Mahler interpreter and proved to be an expert guide. Every section of the orchestra responded to Fischer’s direction with verve and precision. The slow first movement was exquisite in its unremitting melancholy, paving the way for the life-affirming central Scherzo.

Fischer does things his own way, from arranging the double basses on a platform high above and behind the rest of the orchestra to inviting principal horn player Zoltán Szőke to take centre-stage for Mahler’s Scherzo. Far from a showman’s gimmickry, his musical innovations worked to great effect, not least when Szőke turned the bell of his instrument into the audience.

Their Mahler was thrilling and richly-textured, a performance of phenomenal power which kept the capacity audience enthralled for more than an hour.

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