Amazing things happen when players throw caution to the wind and completely inhabit the music they are playing. Nicola Benedetti, enjoying an enthusiastic and large following in Scotland, is renowned for losing herself to the music she performs. Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra are popular visitors to the Edinburgh International Festival with their fresh and different approach, so the anticipation of hearing soloist and orchestra together resulted in a completely packed Usher Hall.

Nicola Benedetti © Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti
© Simon Fowler

Fischer organised his forces innovatively with violins at the front, left and right, the rear players on slightly raised rostra allowing instant communication with the conductor’s beady eye. The six double basses were arranged across the back, stacked high up behind the woodwind, speaking right out into the hall. The timpani went behind the violas, but a lone kettledrum sat in front of Fischer’s podium, a mystery never quite resolved.

Schubert was commissioned by the Theater an der Wien to write incidental music for a play by Georg von Hofmann Die Zauberharfe. While the play flopped, the overture music survived as a concert piece. Fischer drew long ponderous chords from the players before a pastoral catchy tune burst out in the strings heralding delightful woodwind solos with much bright detail, especially from the flute and oboe. The string playing radiated glowing warmth you could almost feel. Fischer kept it lively with many contrasts, entertaining to watch the combination of his precise twitchy baton movements in his right hand with the sweeping descriptions in his left arm. It is a well-oiled partnership, but there was a dramatic sense of surprise that would pervade the evening.

Benedetti’s performance of Brahms' challenging Violin Concerto in D major was a true partnership with the orchestra. Standing level with Fischer’s podium rather than in front, her playing and mature interpretation never overwhelmed the piece, rather intertwining and melding. Eye contact between conductor and soloist and even the leader ensured precision ensemble rubato moments, Benedetti’s wonderful Stradivarius sound blending into the orchestral mellowness. From a long beginning, drama built to a passion, Fischer swinging both arms and Benedetti generating excitement attacking the dotted entries with double stopping and fierce arpeggios before lyrically soaring to the heights, a thrilling cadenza ending the first movement. With horns cut to two players at softer points Fischer ensured balance, the rich string quality supporting some meltingly beautiful solos from the woodwind. Finally, the Hungarian ‘gypsy’ music with its teasing rhythms and games brought the piece to a thrilling conclusion executed with style. With soloist and orchestra living the music so vividly, this was a truly legendary pairing. A thoughtful bluesy encore was slight but captivating with its left hand pizzicatos.

Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major was the single work in the second half, clearly one that the players relished judging from their rapt attention as Fischer conducted from memory, toying with the tempos and mischievously holding back notes by microseconds. The players were animated, leaning into the music, at several points the whole woodwind section bobbing forwards in the space between upbeat and note. The slow burning intense cello start brought brighter and contrasting themes, Fischer shaking both arms in excitement one moment, raising a single finger to hold a phrase another. Listening to the sighing strings and burnished horns in the Adagio was like hearing music at a warm fireside. Jaunty oboe and flute became a vivid Bohemian folk-dance. Finally, a trumpet fanfare and chromatic development led to an intense finale with brass and timpani resplendent, but not before Fischer, teasing us with contrasts had hushed the cellos and bassoons to a barely audible whisper.

A spirited encore of Brahms' Hungarian Dance no. 15 in B major was followed by Dvořák’s Moravian Duet, the ladies of the orchestra forming an instant choir in a tight semicircle. A final surprise and delight from Iván Fischer and his lively Budapest band.