The Budapest Festival Orchestra is highly rated worldwide. Over its little more than thirty years history, the ensemble has received accolades from prestigious institutions. Their musicianship displayed a high level of intimacy with, and understanding of, the repertoire performed in the evening’s programme. Each of the pieces in this concert, conducted by Iván Fischer, had a distinct early 20th century voice, reinforced by the orchestra's position on stage: violins in front, with cellos and violas in the middle; woodwinds surrounded by horns on their left, double-basses and harp at their backs, and brass and percussion on their right. This placement allowed for a richer clarity of sound and making the orchestral timbre more homogeneous, while at the same time more clearly separating its composing sections.

Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches is a collection of short, relatively simple pieces, all orchestrations of pre-existing piano compositions created between 1908 and 1911. As the composer himself admitted, he’d created the work out of financial straits. The Sketches are deliberately less complex than the usual Bartók (who by then had already composed The Miraculous Mandarin and four out of six string quartets), but they still convey the composer’s search for a synthesis between East and West. Mr Fischer’s interpretation brought a round, nearly nasal tone to the instruments (especially the strings). From the beginning, he displayed clear control of the orchestra, and his clear-cut gestures wove individual threads of melody and harmony in a single whole.

Composed between May and September 1948, Strauss’ Four Last Songs show a composer in pensive mood, contemplating the end of his life. Setting three poems by Herman Hesse and one (“Im Abendrot”) by Joseph von Eichendorff, Strauss condenses his whole oeuvre in these songs, and they show a sense of calm and acceptance in the face of death. The orchestra’s timbre was clearly distinct from that in the Bartók: where the first piece sounded like head voice, the lieder was like chest voice.

Mr Fischer’s conducting emphasized Strauss’ programmatic characteristics, and Miah Persson’s voice fused impressively well with the orchestra – on occasion sounding like the very orchestra was singing. Even though her vocal performance was technically unblemished, Ms Persson's body language did not seem to indicate the philosophical and spiritual depth of the lieder.

Built around the lied Das himmlische Leben that constitutes the fourth movement, Mahler's Fourth Symphony draws and anticipates many of that song’s motifs. The orchestra’s voice was once again renewed, this time presenting a muted, “back of the head”-like sound that slowly released itself until finally reaching the heavenly gates at the end of the third movement. Conducting from memory, Mr Fischer conjured great sound-masses, revealing the contrapuntal and orchestral richness of Mahler's music and making good on his declared intention of demonstrating what interest and relevance the historic repertoire holds today. Ms Persson’s performance as the child describing heaven (and the slaughter of animals for the feast) was touching and precise, bringing the programme to a heavenly close.