Crossover is nothing new. In the 19th century, Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms appropriated Hungarian gypsy melodies for the salon and concert hall, drawing on the verbunkos fiddler style in their collections of rhapsodies and dances. After their glittering Mahler 4 on Wednesday, encrusted in Klimtian gold, the Budapest Festival Orchestra voyaged back down the Danube for a night in old Café Budapest. With Iván Fischer as amiable host, they drew the music back to its folk roots, inviting three players from that tradition to add a liberal sprinkling of paprika to the orchestral goulash.

Cimbalom player Jenő Lisztes
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Many of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies are characterised by the variations in tempo found in the traditional csárdás, starting out slowly (lassú) before whipping up to an invigorating finish (friss, literally “fresh”). There is an improvisational quality to the music as notated by Liszt, but Fischer upped the ante by peppering the scores with cimbalom, Jenő Lisztes introducing us to its succulent tang with a brief solo.

Any Hungarian band needs a primás – a violinist leader to wander from table to table and dash off flamboyant fireworks. József Lendvay’s modest demeanour doesn’t quite fit that bill… at least, until he plays. Lendvay first picked up a violin at the age of two and now, well into his seventies, his playing – on his father’s fiddle – exuded natural charm and a lifetime inhabiting this music. What tales this violin could tell! His son, József Lendvay Jr, opted for a conservatory training but traditions hold strong and he dispatched Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen with swagger, style and smoky tone.

József Lendvay Jr, József Lendvay Sr, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

What made this first half so special was the sense of pure joy communicated by Fischer and his band, adopting the folk mantle and fully entering the improvisatory spirit. Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 1 in G minor began as a café quartet, Lendvay Sr accompanied by cimbalom and two double basses, before the BFO stole in, Fischer following the primás’ twists and turns with hawk-like attention and a benevolent smile. The players were having fun in this jam session, the best kind of crossover with outrageous rubatos. But they were clearly moved too, the principal viola brushing away the tears as Lendvay father and son duetted in another Hungarian Dance.

Brahms reappeared after the interval in more sober guise, his First Symphony, composed after an immense struggle to come to grips with a form weighed down by Beethoven’s legacy. After a soft-hued introduction, Fischer propelled the first movement Allegro on purposefully, with scrupulous attention to dynamics. He conducted a performance full of freshness, vigour and love, allowing his orchestra’s considerable strengths to shine. For a young orchestra (created in 1983) it has acquired the patina of the great Central European tradition. With eight double basses flanked along the rear as a sturdy foundation, the string sound bloomed and glowed, the back desks on risers and playing as whole-heartedly as the principals.

Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra sing Brahms
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Waxy brass never dominated, woodwinds blended tastefully, Clément Noël’s beguiling oboe solo in the Andante sostenuto a highlight, along with the gentle clarinet duo that opens the third movement. Horns were noble in the uplifting finale. Aimez-vous Brahms? Oui. Especially when the Budapest Festival Orchestra follow it with an encore of his Fourth Hungarian Dance where the players sang the original folk tune. Hugs and tears all round.