The Budapest Festival Orchestra had a busy week. On Thursday, they performed a fund-raising concert with Daniel Barenboim as soloist, while on the next day, they presented the first of a four-concert series with the thought-provoking combination of compositions by Franz Schubert and Béla Bartók.

Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra © Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Budapest Festival Orchestra

Unusually, however, when Iván Fischer stepped in front of the orchestra on Friday night, he had a microphone, rather than a baton, in his hand. In a simple but touching speech, he paid his respects to his colleague and founding member of the BFO, pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis, who passed away a few weeks ago. What followed was a most effective tribute to this extraordinary musician. The BFO performed the slow movement of Béla Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto on a stage devoid of both a piano and a soloist, a gesture as poignant as it was symbolic; with seamless technological assistance, the piano part, in Kocsis’s performance, was played through speakers, adding his recording from the distant past to the live orchestral performance.

Only then began the advertised first item, The Magic Harp Overture by Schubert, with strikingly lush, impeccably balanced chords. After the sombre introduction, the main section of this delightful work (often and incorrectly called the Rosamunde Overture) radiated effortless joy, a smorgasbord of cheeky Schubertian accents, elegant phrasing and perfect unity between conductor and his orchestra.

Leonidas Kavakos is a favourite guest artist of the orchestra. He had already presented Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto a few years ago in Budapest and performed the same work again in this concert. Kavakos is one of those artists whose aim is clearly not to ‘sell’ himself with extra-musical gestures; his focus on stage has one purpose and one purpose only: to offer the best possible interpretation of the composition. His technical assuredness is awe-inspiring and he produces a round, warm sound that at its loudest easily carries to the furthest point of the auditorium without distortion, while at its softest, excels with clearly distinguished whisper-like delicacy. His reading of Bartók’s complex score drew attention to many fine details, although the rubato of his playing was somewhat less than some of other great performances of this work. Nonetheless, the self-evident clarity of even the fastest sections, the brilliant crispness of the demanding chordal passages, his multi-faceted vibrato allowed the concerto to sound as was intended: a classic and beautiful work, notwithstanding its daring musical language, combining simple melodies reminiscent of Hungarian folk-music with 12-tone techniques and (just before the first movement’s cadenza) the bold use of quarter tones.

Fischer’s orchestra was consistently sensitive down to the slightest changes of dynamics, articulation, or tempo, and provided a transparent sound even in the most polyphonic passages. The brass players’ sound never overpowered the soloist, yet their contemptuous guffaw was compelling in its deliberate crudeness just before the bassoon-solo violin dialogue in the first movement. The timpani was a genuine partner to the solo violin in the delicate first variation of the second movement, and the strings’ velvety cushion of harmonic background reliably supported the solo.

Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches is an authorial orchestration of some of his most popular piano pieces. All of them appear to be influenced by Hungarian folk music, although only the last one is based on a true folk song. The parlando phrasing of the first of the five short movements (Evening in Transylvania) was compelling in its seemingly unrepeatable spontaneity; equally, every bar appeared to have a different tempo – most appropriately – in the fourth movement (Slightly Tipsy). Fischer did not make any obvious effort to control the music's flow, yet his succinct, well-placed instructions were to the point; he directed his orchestra with subtle but clear hand movements, consistently encouraging every single player to play at his/her best. This intimate relationship with his musicians (going back over thirty years) reminded me of the extraordinary achievements of the long-term orchestra-building work of the likes of Eugene Ormandy, Georg Szell and Herbert von Karajan. A rare phenomenon in our times…

Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat major provided the final pillar in the arch of 20th-century music framed by 19th-century works. With brilliant seating arrangement, the small woodwind section of only seven was seated in front of the conductor, rather than behind the strings, making it possible for those players to be heard easily. Fischer’s tempi were carefully chosen, never too fast, always giving the audience time to appreciate the eloquent phrasing. Every melody, every surprising change of harmony delivered its meaning and this was particularly beneficial in the daring harmonic turns of the Andante con moto.

The ending of the concert was just as memorable as its beginning: the musicians stood around their conductor and sang Schubert’s heart-warming a cappella choral work, Christ ist erstanden.