This concert saw the Budapest Festival Orchestra reduced to a period ensemble of fewer than ten musicians plus soloists for Bach’s cantata ‘Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht’, and after the interval packed closely together as they filled the large stage of the Konzerthaus with forces well in excess of the not-insignificant minimum required for a big Bruckner symphony. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, but after the rather scrappy Bach it was a rare delight to hear a fresher sound working to unexpectedly magnificent effect in Bruckner’s Seventh.

© Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Budapest Festival Orchestra

Until ten years ago the acoustic in the Großer Saal of the Konzerthaus was routinely compared to that of an aircraft hangar. Following a successful refit, the most soft-spoken of pianists can now project to the back of the gallery without applying more force than they would normally. But in this concert the musicians and singers struggled to blend in the Bach cantata and should not have been spaced so far apart; soprano Noémi Kiss and bass Peter Harvey were closer to the stage exits than to conductor Iván Fischer, who directed from a harpsichord placed stage front and centre, and their phrasing was at odds with what the ensemble was playing. The polyphonic writing and delayed harmonic resolutions which feature so prominently in the choral parts also failed to make much impact. Rich-voiced mezzo Atala Schöck was the only singer who projected well, her one recitative expressively sung with excellent diction. There was some good playing despite the general thinness of ensemble, particularly from the two violinists, who capably negotiated some tricky passagework with good legato and phrasing.

Iván Fischer clearly holds no truck with portentous tempi in Bruckner, and always strived to keep things moving. But while his approach was closer to Bruckner’s tempo indications than the expansive readings I prefer, this was no flowing account, and Fischer added to Bruckner’s non sequiturs with a few jarring moments of his own. Bruckner’s periodicity was emphasized over the protean quality of his diverse thematic materials, which should ideally acquire greater formal significance with each subtle transformation, and the first movement was too linear for the coda to do much apart from sound impressive.

For the first movement of the Seventh to lack structural unity usually makes for a disappointing Bruckner experience. But Fischer’s fresh take on the symphony’s innovative sonorities paid off where his other ideas fell short. Gone was the persistent density of tone – which has its place in Bruckner performance but can be a turn-off to many – replaced by an invigorating, stripped-back sound conducive to transparency. Part of that is the way that the Budapest Festival Orchestra typically play, though concessions were made (their Wagner tubas could do service in Bayreuth, and not once did Bruckner sound like Bartók). It made an interesting change even if it succeeded less on its own terms than through impressively alert playing; minus one swiftly rescued and near-unnoticeable Wagner tuba mishap, the BFO’s playing was flawless from start to finish. Uniformity of timbre and attack was particularly good in the strings and there was a massive wall of sound for Bruckner’s unison passages in which even the brightness of the BFO trumpets didn’t stick out.

The orchestra was just as impeccably balanced for Bruckner’s overwhelming climaxes, sounding like one big powerful instrument for a sudden (and yet not unprepared) C major breakthrough in the Adagio. The ‘non confundar’ Te Deum motif which rings outs in the Wagner tubas here was truly majestic. Much of it was loud, though never gratuitous, and while the BFO’s direct, unprocessed sound isn’t what I’d usually go for in Bruckner they blazed and beguiled their way through this Seventh with compelling playing.