Couching less familiar works among chestnuts is a common concert programming trick to keep audience members from bolting out the door at the prospect of hearing something contemporary. In the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Paris Impressions programme, that kind of juxtaposition incontestably favoured Henri Dutilleux’s 1985 violin concerto L’arbre des songes, an intense and introspective, if often confounding mélange of virtuosic solo and ensemble writing.

Ning Feng © Felix Broede
Ning Feng
© Felix Broede

A master at clever programming, Maestro Iván Fischer surrounded this work with well-known pieces by Debussy, Ravel and Satie in the fourth of nineteen music and visual arts events in the week-long French Days segment of the Bridging Europe 2016 series at Budapest’s Müpa. Translated as The tree of dreams, Dutilleux chose that title to suggest “the constant renewal and multiplication of [a tree’s] branches”, as per the composer’s words quoted in the programme notes. In the expert hands of Ning Feng and his silver-toned Stradivarius, the work felt almost like an immediate extension of the just previously performed Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, as if the faun had begun to examine his arboreal environment with more scientific curiosity.

The shimmering delicacy of Fischer’s approach to Debussy's score produced divinely gossamer moments that morphed effortlessly into the opening solo line of the violin concerto. Dutilleux’s similarly gauzy textures in the first of four movements developed subtly and energetically into a maelstrom of magnetic frequencies that catapulted themselves toward a frenzied grand finale. Feng’s wondrous wizardry with Dutilleux’s high velocity effects and long lyrical lines, amidst an astonishing orchestration that brandished dramatic contributions from the xylophone and harp, staccato muted brass chords, a quartet of cellos, and frequent tutti pizzicatos, swirled around us like a bizarre spectral image of a magnificent tree as it sprang from miraculous soil.

From Erik Satie’s 1888 piano suite Trois gymnopédies, the orchestra performed no. 1, simply marked Lent et grave – the most recognizable, due to its vast commercial use – and the version heard here was orchestrated by Debussy in 1896. To these ears, the piano version is far superior to what dear Claude cooked up, beginning with the famous opening chords: assigning them to bowed strings erased all the haunting, percussive punch of the original.

Inexplicably, the Maestro omitted the expected no. 2 and proceeded to Ravel’s 1902 Pavane pour une infante défunte, a seven-minute musical ode to a French court dance despite the titular reference to something more funereal. Though it was performed with consummate dreaminess, this too was rather tepid in orchestration. Although Ravel was the modern master of orchestral colour, his piano writing still projects considerably more excitement, if only through 88 keys. I suspect this version, along with Debussy’s arrangements of Satie, was done to satisfy a publisher rather than from the composer's own initiative. In any case, these two satisfied the 'chestnut' aspect of the programme.

Finally, a thrilling example of some of the most elevated orchestral writing of the early 20th century in Paris: Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé. As the orchestra performed the three sections of Suite no. 2, listeners were bathed in lustrous waves of the deliciously erotic ballet score commissioned by Diaghilev in 1909 for performances that starred Nijinsky and Karsavina dancing the title roles (which Pierre Monteux conducted). What a glorious time machine to experience with Fischer as navigator! He maximized the cinematic sweep with rapturous emotional flow, without any egregious milking of phrases. His artful shaping of the finale’s unhinged revelry, especially in the superb acoustics of Müpa's Béla Bartók Hall, was a breathless wonder. Key solos by flutist Erika Sebök, oboist Clément Noël, French horn player Zoltán Szöke, and harpists Ágnes Polónyi and Júlia Szilvási added more eloquent expertise.

Their encore, which Fischer explained to the audience was their special treat, was a short French folk tune in 3/4 time, a lilting set of verses sung a cappella by the orchestra. While this practice is unprecedented in international concert halls, it certainly is not unprecedented within this orchestra’s recent musical history. Fischer loves to trot out his orchestra’s extra abilities to provide unexpected novelties for the audience. That’s all well and good, but if singing is going to continue being a regular occurrence from this ensemble, it behoves them to develop a bit more vocal acumen than was demonstrated on this occasion, especially from those assigned to the soprano part.