It is one thing to see a Rembrandt in a coffee table book, another altogether to observe it in the flesh, a mere feet away. So it was with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, an ensemble whose work is better known internationally via its recordings than for its live work. Stopping over in Los Angeles for a three-concert series at the Hollywood Bowl, the orchestra, under Iván Fischer, displayed to local audiences just how much of its color and nuance is lost on records.

Iván Fischer
© Marco Borggreve

Like its namesake city, whose culture has been marked by the various peoples and armies that flowed along the Danube River that cuts through it, the orchestra was something of an amalgam of diverse influences which it has fused together into something entirely their own. In Thursday night’s program, with music by Haydn and Handel opening, one heard mingling amidst the faint residual buzz in the horns of the old Eastern European school the clean-cut, period-informed playing typical of Western ensembles.

Even among devotees of classical music, 18th-century composers like Haydn conjure images of severe men bedecked in powdered wigs, more marble statue than human. But as anybody who loves his music knows well, Haydn was perhaps among the earthiest, most human of composers, to which the BFO and Fischer were keenly alert. In their hands, the Symphony no. 88 in G major danced, beguiled and roared out laughing. The orchestra’s woodwinds, easily its most attractive feature, imparted an almost human voice to the proceedings, even if at times the mixture of old and new resulted in some piquant incongruities: like the sight of a bewigged Papa Haydn posing shirtless for a duckface selfie.

A handful of arias by Handel followed (with bold continuo playing by Soma Dinyés) with the opulent-voiced Jeanine De Bique handling these works’ virtuosic arpeggiations and trills with all the seeming ease of a bird soaring in flight. Yet one could discern behind these Baroque characters that she incarnated momentarily a foreshadowing of a Kundry or Salome waiting to be heard, perhaps in the not too distant future.

The Dvořák Eighth Symphony proved to be disappointingly anti-climactic, opening with the tangy winds and burnished sonorities of the BFO's cello section – imagine for a moment if a centuries-old redwood forest could break out into song – and ending with something like a thud. Fischer lavished great focus and attentiveness to textural detail in the first two movements. Then Cinderella-like, Fischer’s Dvořák went from dazzling coach coursing along with breathtaking beauty to a mere pumpkin plopped along the side of the road. The yearning trio of the Scherzo was more Stravinsky than sentiment, while the Finale hobbled about tiredly like an exhausted football player waiting out the clock; an effect that the unexpected “yo-ho-ho-ing” of the orchestra during one of the movement’s descending unison passages merely accentuated. If one is running on interpretive fumes, one may as well fashion Dvořák into Leroy Anderson for the sake of novelty. (Though the sweetness of their encore, one of the former composer’s Moravian Duets sung by the females of the orchestra, alleviated the bitter aftertaste of the symphony’s Finale.)

Nevertheless, what emerged here was often times a startling contrast from the orchestra’s blander, more perfunctory sounding recordings. Their risk-taking, even when the effect flopped, was something to admire in these more soberly interpretive times.