A bracing and beautiful Bartók seminar from Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra

Sat Apr 06, 2019 at 12:27 pm
Ivan Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Ivan Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is at Carnegie Hall this weekend for a two-concert run under music director Ivan Fischer, and they are here to deliver the music of Bela Bartók. Friday night that meant marvelous performances of the Miraculous Mandarin Suite and the great Concerto for Orchestra.

Bartók is something of the official composer of Hungary, and Hungarian musicians have always been among the leaders in performances of his work—for orchestral music, that means conductors like Ferenc Fricsay, Georg Solti, and Fischer. More than merely presenting his countryman’s greatest hits though, Fischer made the concert into something of a music lesson. The conductor is brilliant at transforming concert programs into something out of the ordinary, and Friday this meant an experience that was enlightening and beautiful.

The lesson fell in between the opening suite and the second half performance of the concerto, and came from, appropriately, a school teacher and his high school music students. Fischer introduced this by saying Bartók was a great composer and also a major educator. Through his pioneering ethno-musicological research, he gathered musical material that Zoltan Kodály used in his method for teaching music to children, one that is still prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe. To show this, he brought out the Cantemus Choir, an all-girls high school ensemble, and their teacher and conductor Dénes Szabó.

With Fischer sitting within the orchestra, Szabó tossed a quick glance over his shoulder, as if to take in the hall’s dimensions, and then launched crisply into assured, lovely performances of a handful of the 27 Two- and Three-part Choruses Bartók wrote for student groups.

The music is juvenile, songs about children and adolescents, to be sung by the same. The choruses use just a touch of the composer’s syncopations, and the harmonies are thinner, though still more advanced and idiosyncratic than basic diatonic triads.

The Cantemus Choir performed with the Budapest Festival Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

The Cantemus Choir performed with the Budapest Festival Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

The Cantemus Choir, wearing traditional dresses, had a gorgeous sound, pristine, sweet, and silvery, yet also surprisingly substantial. Their attacks and phrases were perfectly coordinated, as defined as any top chamber ensemble. The crowd gave them an enormous ovation.

After the a cappella music, Fischer replaced Szabó at the podium for more choral selections, these with orchestral accompaniment Bartók wrote for student ensembles. This music was a complete pleasure, and it was more than charming to hear the young choir sing as the professional orchestra played. It was also fascinating to experience how Bartók wrote music with the notes kept at a basic level while wrapped in the kind of complex rhythms and harmonies that demand the attention of advanced musicians.

And such an ensemble is the Budapest Festival Orchestra. A tremendous orchestra, the BFO has the most distinctive sound of any symphonic group on the scene today. In a world where the top orchestras describe a range of bright, precise, solid textures, the BFO makes a sound that glows yellow-orange like the sun, plenty warm but never too hot, not grainy but somehow full of a spectrum of textures—even at their most intense moments their playing remains sensual.

That meant for an exceptional balance in the music from the lascivious Miraculous Mandarin ballet. There was a precise, even delicate poise throughout, even through the exotic colors, the lurid trombone slides, and the moments of extreme violence. The playing from the low brass and Ákos Ács’s clarinet solo were exceptionally fine.

The Concerto for Orchestra was even better. Bartók has a unique quality, a combination of a modern sensibility that can be described as post-Nietzschean and post-Picasso—exacting structural and formal detail and rejecting bourgeois convention while yanking ancient aesthetic ideas into the contemporary world. The concerto is something of a cosmopolitan and urban apotheosis of those roots, with a beautiful modern design and an almost aristocratic idea of pleasure.

Performances invariably emphasize the music’s modernity—the BFO made the music sound both new and old, with an ancièn-regime poise and a glowing sound, like they were playing Schubert or Brahms. The absolute originality of the Giuoco delle coppie, and the Shostakovich parody in the Intermezzo interrotto, had great relish. Fischer took barely a pause between movements, and that made the large-scale form a pleasure in and of itself.

And the BFO also delivers encores like no other group. Fischer said “We will give you a taste” of Saturday’s program. Then he brought out a violinist, violist, and bassist from the audience to play some Eastern European folk music tunes. Scintillating.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra plays Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, with mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi and bass Krisztián Cser 8 p.m. Saturday. carnegiehall.org

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