It is not often that 300 years would pass between the creation of two compositions performed on the same evening. Yet, this is exactly what happened at the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s refreshingly innovative concert. As it has gradually become a familiar feature of their performances, these splendid instrumentalists diverged from the well-trodden path and began the concert by playing – and singing – a selection from Claudio Monteverdi’s collection of musical jokes, Scherzi musicali

Iván Fischer and Vilde Frang in rehearsal
© István Kurcsák | Budapest Festival Orchestra

On the left-hand side of the stage, a dozen musicians accompanied twice as many of their singing colleagues on the opposite side. Judging by the smiles all around, they must have had a most enjoyable time, which we, the audience, could have shared even more, had we had access to the text of the songs performed. The string players used Baroque bows and adopted an unforced informed style, while others contributed with wittily coordinated finger cymbals and other percussive instruments.

A last-minute change in the program then offered Béla Bartók’s first (rather than his more famous, second) violin concerto. The soloist, Norwegian Vilde Frang, seemed to emphasise the pained and unrequited love that Bartók felt towards the work’s dedicatee, the not-yet 20-year-old violinist Stefi Geyer, with the warm intensity of her opening D major seventh chord, repeated many times later by the gradually entering divided string sections of the orchestra. As it happened, Geyer rejected both the work and the composer and as a result, the concerto was not premiered until after the composer’s death, several decades later. The opening minutes carry the sincere dialogue of a Bach two-part invention and the highly contrapuntal writing stays as a reminder of the young Bartók’s extraordinary abilities.

It cannot be said that the soloist surprised anyone with the beautifully controlled density of her vibrato or the earnestness of her interpretation, for her attitude towards the compositions she chooses to perform is unfailingly sincere, respectful, yet looking for uncharted musical solutions. She meticulously followed the score’s detailed instructions, whilst creating her own interpretation, which was as memorable as it was unique. The orchestral accompaniment, while always appearing spontaneous, was finely measured by Iván Fischer.

The last work on the programme, Schubert's Symphony no. 9 in C major, “The Great”, held further surprises, even if regular fans of the BFO have encountered this extraordinary experiment before. Fischer seated the woodwind players in a semi-circle in front of him and mixed up the rest of the orchestra, strategically perhaps, but without any obvious logic for the uninitiated. Sections no longer sat together, a trombonist may have been positioned next to a viola player, and cellos and double basses were to be found literally left, right and centre.

This highly unusual seating resulted in the redefinition of a number of orchestral practices. Traditional sections of instruments were no longer together, playing roles were evened out, as section leaders could no longer lead. The conductor could not (nor did he intend to) give entry cues; therefore, he ceased leading his orchestra in a physical sense but conducted the music (the difference is significant!) in his highly immersive and deeply musical manner.

As the woodwind players no longer had to play over the sound of 60-70 string playing colleagues in front of them, their focus on the written dynamics and the subtle articulation of Schubert’s lines was complete. The string players used almost no vibrato, while keeping their body of sound effortless and self-evidently warm. Their ensemble was immaculate; even the second movement’s “heart-beat” pizzicati sounded perfectly together. In the Scherzo, the reduction of the strings to left and right side offered a superb stereophonic effect, adding even more detail to a brilliant concert.