sat 15/06/2024

Prom 37: Schiff, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Fischer 1 review - landscapes and mindscapes | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 37: Schiff, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Fischer 1 review - landscapes and mindscapes

Prom 37: Schiff, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Fischer 1 review - landscapes and mindscapes

Splendid musical scenery on a spirited Romantic journey

Power and grace: Iván Fischer and the Budapest festival orchestraAll images Mark Allan/BBC

“Very traditional, but fun,” ran the verdict of one fellow-traveller as we waited for a bus outside the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday night. No one can gainsay the infectious fun that the Budapest Festival Orchestra bring to every gig. For all its musical accomplishment, Iván Fischer’s all-singing (yes, they did) if not quite all-dancing (yet) outfit never forget that they belong to a, rather elevated, branch of show business.

As for the “traditional” tag, I might beg to differ. True, for their first Prom (out of three this year) they delivered a triple-decker stack of mainstream Romantic goodies: Weber’s Freischutz overture followed by the Schumann Piano Concerto (with Sir András Schiff) and Mendelssohn’s Third, “Scottish” symphony. Despite the BFO’s creamy, warm and enveloping sound, Mitteleuropa on a high-calorie plate, the agility and audacity of Fischer’s approach to even the most familiar pieces means that every outing for a venerable warhorse can feel like a frisky reinvention. 

If the two outer works transported us to the iconic Romantic landscapes of the spooky German forests, and the rugged Scottish Highlands, Schiff’s Schumann tracked a path through the divided soul – here, more merrily than tragically – of the composer. In Weber’s ten-minute blockbuster, an entire opera in miniature, a horn quartet placed on high beside the organ (pictured below) supplied the evening's first touch of Budapest theatricality. From parping trombones to eerie clarinets and rolling timpani, with a mighty battery of basses at the back, Fischer drew fresh, invigorating timbres and textures from his band. Weber’s Gothic mood-music never descended into corny melodrama: the Budapesters kept their light and droll touch even in the darkest thickets of the supernatural woods. Prom 37For the Schumann concerto, Schiff – having overcome an awkward start – placed his stress on the serene, even joyful aspects of the soloist’s Romantic journey, as the composer’s twin personae (extrovert Florestan and brooding Eusebius) converse, combine and – sometimes – clash. Graceful, fluid but firm and clear in his articulation, Schiff brought the Mozartian side of Schumann’s conception to the fore – especially in flavourful exchanges with the outstanding BFO woodwinds (a special salute to Victor Aviat’s oboes and Ákos Ács’s clarinets). The cadenza of the work’s Allegro affetuoso opening proved gripping and majestic, while the high-spirited Intermezzo that followed had charm but not frivolity, with fine-toned cellos adding their satisfying silken warmth. 

Schiff (pictured below) somehow sounded both skittish and musing – the rival personalities of Florestan and Eusebius, here harmoniously fused. As for the closing Allegro vivace, Fischer injected a bouncing, skipping drive as Schiff, mercurial but urbane, commanded the outlandish rhythmic jumps and swerves. Fine-rolled timpani led into valedictory tutti imbued by Fischer with a surging but never heavy-handed energy. After that, two surprise encores, BFO-style: Schiff accompanied the orchestra members who sweetly sang one of Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder, then played the Happy Farmer from Schumann’s Album für die Jugend. Fun is fine, but on such an occasion you must sprinkle it with wit and grace. Fischer and Schiff do.Prom 37Our trip to Scotland with Mendelssohn (and Fischer) saw, predictably but deliciously, some Hungarian accents surface amid the glens, bens and lochs. Spirited, buoyant, never clogged or dragging, the first movement transited smoothly from its ominous andante start on violas and woods to the storm and stress of its development – “un poco agitato” for sure, as we lurched and pitched through a terrifically atmospheric squall. Violas and cellos to the fore, the BFO strings sounded luscious but not cloying – a sort of deep-pile tartan velvet. Skittering and reeling out of the Highland mists, the folksy scherzo – with its “Scotch snap” rhythms – spun and whirled, perky clarinets leading the dance. When it came to the warm melodic embrace of the adagio, Fischer (pictured below) did perhaps locate it stylistically closer to the Danube than the Dee. But with horns and strings this gloriously appealing, who worries about geography?  Prom 37Fischer’s swift and deft segues from one movement (or even passage) to another helped knit Mendelssohn’s disparate materials together. In the finale, with its dizzying contrapuntal combats, the BFO always sounded aerial, not earthbound. If these are battle scenes (the marking suggests Allegro guerriero) then Fischer’s spring and verve soon heals every wound. He dabbed one vibrant colour after another onto a scene that, supposedly, recalls the tragedy of Mary, Queen of Scots. Fanciful Romantic storytelling aside, there’s no denying the thrill of the movement’s shift into its triumphant closing theme (A major now, not minor). Show-people as well as artists, the orchestra’s strings stood up for this rousing coda as the Budapest horns blazed above in all their robust refinement. As an encore, a debonair, light-footed account of Dvorak’s ninth Slavonic Dance threw a musical bridge from Scotland to Bohemia. Traditional? Maybe – but the opposite of stuffy or inert. 

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