The Budapest Festival Orchestra has had a busier lockdown than most. Every member has taken part in its “Quarantine soirées”, streamed chamber recitals often introduced by Iván Fischer himself, occasionally accompanied by his pet tortoise, Pandora. Tuesday saw the 77th and final soirée for now because a reduced BFO (36 players) then hit the road again for a mini-European tour taking in Ravenna and Ingolstadt. With Italy emerging from lockdown, open-air events are permitted with small audiences, allowing the Ravenna Festival to proceed in a revised programme largely based at the mighty Rocca Brancaleone, a 15th-century Venetian fortress.

Iván Fischer
© Zani-Casadio

Reduced forces, maybe, but there was no reduction in Fischer’s ingenious programming of this away fixture: three works from three centuries, each written – at least partly – far from home. Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, composed on the shores of Lake Lucerne, is proving quite the favourite for orchestras emerging into the post-Covid light. It helped reopen the Paris Philharmonie at the end of May, and recently featured in Karina Canellakis’ programme with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. Fischer led a leisurely but not too slow account, his long baton fluidly shaping the musical line. The recorded sound strongly favoured the strings, sweet and silky in the best Central European tradition, but a shame for the excellent Budapest woodwinds which drifted into the aural background. 

Benjamin Britten wrote most of his song cycle Les Illuminations during self-imposed exile in North America at the start of the Second World War. It’s good to see sopranos reclaiming this territory. Premiered by Sophie Wyss in 1940, it quickly fell into the repertoire of Peter Pears – he was even the dedicatee of Being Beauteous – and other tenors followed in his footsteps. But in recent years, Sandrine Piau, Barbara Hannigan and Karina Gauvin have tackled it, as well as Anna Prohaska, singing here in Ravenna.

Anna Prohaska
© Zani-Casadio

Britten’s settings of Arthur Rimbaud's sensuous texts are highly perfumed. Prohaska, wearing a large flower in her hair to match her dusky pink gown, floated top notes serenely, especially in Antique, the thrumming violas and cellos evoking guitars. There was swagger in Royauté and she clearly relished the consonants in Being Beauteous. But the opening Fanfare’s motto “J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage!” (I alone hold the key to this savage parade!) felt strangely forced rather than declamatory and Prohaska wasn’t helped that there was a strange halo of reverberation around her. The Budapest strings were astonishingly good though, its Wagnerian silk abandoned for acidic colour and disturbingly icy glissandos. There were excellent solo contributions from the principal players, including guest leader Savitri Grier.

Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Zani-Casadio

Given the strings’ chameleon-like transformation from Wagner to Britten, the Hungarians’ London Symphony was underwhelming. When Fischer conducts Haydn with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the results have been lean, lithe and lively, but there were few nods to historically informed manners here. After the portentous Adagio introduction, the Allegro felt sluggish. Haydn’s impish humour still shone through in the gentle Andante, but Fischer’s teasing rubatos in the third movement Trio felt too protracted, too calculated. The spiritoso finale lumbered rather than cavorted, with a few untidy edges.

Fischer and the BFO often rest their instruments and sing their encores – perhaps not wise given current performing restrictions – so here they offered us something authentically homegrown, the last two of Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, dashed off with vim and vigour, before dashing across the Alps to Germany to repeat this programme.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

Ver on-line