Thursday 25 April 2013

Review: The Budapest Festival Orchestra visits Basingstoke

Ivan Fischer, founder and music director of the BFO
Budapest Festival Orchestra
23 July 2013 - The Anvil, Basingstoke

I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the Budapest Festival Orchestra is the greatest ever to have visited Basingstoke. My eyes bulged when I read their name in the The Anvil's concert season brochure: in the years since the orchestra was founded by conductor Ivan Fischer, they've gained the kind of reputation that was once the preserve of the famous orchestras of Berlin and Vienna, trumping the latter by actually delivering the goods on any given day. And, my goodness, they delivered in Basingstoke, playing with all the jaw-dropping beauty and refinement for which they've become famous.

Not that they will have felt especially loved, mind you, after seeing acres of The Anvil's blue seats going spare. Those that turned out got a slice of Hungarian colour in the form of Ernő Dohnányi's Symphony Minutes (1933), which crackles with hyperactive invention and off-kilter harmonic imagination. It's something of a party piece for Fischer, who's still in charge three decades after the orchestra's first concert. 

The Budapest players then changed mode completely for a period-conscious performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with Imogen Cooper. Clear textures and old fashioned brass instruments ruled, and Cooper’s way with the piano part matched the orchestra’s delicately balanced playing. Cooper produced an astounding dynamic range from the keyboard and, while her mature approach was a little sober, she was adept at highlighting the young composer’s moments of cheeky iconoclasticism, underlining the point by opting for the longest and weirdest of Beethoven’s cadenzas. She paid tribute to her accompanists with Schubert’s Hungarian Melody, D817.  

Brahms spent years slaving away on a symphony that would live up to the example of Beethoven and, in the end, wrote four. The last is in some ways the culmination of the process - more concise and confident than its predecessors, yet more inclined towards tradgedy; scarcely ever can it have recieved a performance of more carefully sculpted beauty and total perfection than this. Nods towards period-instrument sensibilities were coupled with totally transparent ensemble, but no lack of georgous colour - the plunge down to an unexplectedly dark C major at the end of the slow movement, underpinned by the double basses, was just one such moment of impossibly rich tone. If there is any better ensemble in the world right now, I've not heard it.

But there was a problem, and he was holding the baton. Fischer's direction drew the best from an orchestra he's honed and coaxed for thirty years, but in place of flow, logic and an accumulation of emotional tension came a disjointed vision of episodic regard for each new wonder. Yes, the second movement's quieter passages were a marvel of quiet, loving playing and yes, the final movement's flute solo was infinitely touching, but instead of structure, Fischer presented a succession of passages, each characterised to perfection but without any cumulative impression of what the symphony might mean. It was a baffling experience: how could something so staggeringly beautiful be quite so boring?

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