Budapest Festival Orchestra whips up a storm at Lincoln Center
Midway into the opening movement of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Ivan Fischer conjured a storm from the Budapest Festival Orchestra. He whipped up a thunderous roar from the brass, shook his fist to coax the cellos for more furious bowing, and his baton jabbed at the second violins, eliciting lightning-quick attacks. Fischer flung his arms side to side tossing his entire ensemble into this tempest. As the first movement closed, a lone whoop rang out in the house from an audience member unable to restrain his excitement.
It’s hard to think of an orchestra that can stir greater thrills than the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Fischer, its founder and music director. On Sunday, the orchestra was at Avery Fisher Hall for the first of two all-Dvořák concerts presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series. The programs seemed a bit tame on paper for an ensemble known for inventive midnight concerts in Hungary and wildly original semi-staged opera productions.
However, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 hardly seemed like an old chestnut in Fisher’s hands, which were in constant motion. They floated balletically in the opening lyrical section, lightly flicked to signal a delicate pluck from the violins at the end of the second movement Adagio, and pounded at the timpani as if dotting exclamation points.
Written in 1889, the work is a contrast of G major and minor, and the key fluctuates throughout. Fischer emphasized the modulations, and accentuated other juxtapositions in dynamics and tempi. In the fourth movement, the orchestra became almost inaudibly soft just before Fischer started steering the players through the final coda, pushing them to play louder and faster like a jockey driving his thoroughbred to the finish line. The violins were a bit thin in softer moments, and the horn section was shaky at times, but these imperfections didn’t detract from the impassioned playing. Little surprises, such as the string section laughing along with the main theme in the fourth movement, brought unexpected pleasures to the performance.
The concert opened dramatically, as the members of the BFO flooded an empty stage, followed by Fischer who jumped right into the first of two of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances: No. 2: Starodávý, a lush slow waltz, swelled with expressive yearning. No. 1: Odzemek, a bombastic march with crashing cymbals and fanfares, rippled with energy. Fischer also returned from intermission in the same fashion, leaping into Dvořák’s Legend No. 6, a haunting six-minute piece with a swooning melody shot through with bluesy riffs.
Garrick Ohlsson joined the orchestra for Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor, a piece written 23 years earlier than the Eighth Symphony (though subsequently revised in 1883). Since its premiere, the concerto has suffered from a reputation for not being virtuosic enough, as well as being notoriously difficult. Rather than showcasing the piano in glittery solo passages, the keyboard part weaves into the tapestry of the orchestra through a grand Brahmsian opening movement, a pensive Andante, and a finale with motifs reminiscent of both the Slavonic Dances and Arabic music.
Ohlsson, a specialist in the Romantic repertoire who played Dvořák’s cadenzas, nevertheless found several moments that impressed. His fingers deftly blurred over the keyboard in the first and final movements. In the slow movement, he alternated between moving reverie and a playful galloping theme. As an encore, he provided a haltingly bittersweet account of Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 116, No. 6.
For the orchestra’s encore, Fischer confused the audience with an odd choice, “Možnost,” a vocal work from Dvořák’s Four Moravian Duets, Op. 38. As a final surprise, the female members of the orchestra put down their instruments and sweetly sang the Czech lullaby for a poignant and unexpected end to the afternoon.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra will perform a second all-Dvořák program 8 p.m. Monday at Avery Fisher Hall. The program includes the Cello Concerto with Daniel Müller-Schott, the Slavonic Dance, Op. 72, No. 6, the Legend No. 10, and the Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” lincolncenter.org