Unusually perhaps, this review begins with a reference to the encore given at the end of this concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Why? Because there cannot be many purely instrumental ensembles, if any, capable of shuffling together to form a choir and perform – to an impressive standard – one of the seven songs for mixed chorus, Op.62 by Johannes Brahms, “Es geht ein Wehen durch den Wald”. That alone is testament to the intrinsic musicality of an orchestra that was named by Gramophone in 2008 as one of their top ten in the world.

Budapest Festival Orchestra with Iván Fischer © Harrison Parrott
Budapest Festival Orchestra with Iván Fischer
© Harrison Parrott

The bedrock of any great orchestra is its string section. Iván Fischer has trained his musicians to the point where they breathe as one, with uniform bowing and meticulous attention to note values. The precision of the antiphonal strings in the curtain-raiser, Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute, was remarkable. One can wait a long time to hear such a homogeneous and beautifully blended string sound allied to a seemingly faultless sense of inner balance. But here’s the rub: what works for Mozart can easily sound bland and dull elsewhere, as became apparent in the second half.

Before that we were treated to a master-lesson by Maria João Pires in how to play a Mozart concerto. The Viennese musicologist Michael Lorenz has been credited with discovering the true identity of the pianist for whom Mozart wrote his early E flat concerto. Erroneously given the nickname “Jeunehomme” (= young man), originally believed to be a reference to the composer himself, the work was composed in 1777 for the daughter of one of his friends, a travelling French virtuoso by the name of Louise Victoire Jenamy.

It is a remarkable piece for all kinds of reasons: the soloist enters almost immediately after a brief orchestral flourish (an idea Mozart was never to repeat again), it has a clutch of cadenzas spread over the three movements, the dark-hued and velvet-robed slow movement is one of only five out of the entire canon in the minor key, and it is a near-perfect example of true collaboration between a soloist and orchestra, in which there is a barely a single musical idea which is not passed seamlessly between the two. Unquestionably an early masterpiece, it was described by Mendelssohn as “too eloquent for words”. The sheer radiance of Pires’ playing was matched by the sparkling accompaniment. Not the least of the many felicities in this performance was the start of the rondo finale, where the chirruping effects created by the strings were echoed magically by the soloist. And was this hint of birdsong the inspiration for her choice of encore, I wonder : Schumann’s The Prophet Bird (Vogel als Prophet), taken from Waldszenen, Op.82, which she played with the same crystalline tone and simplicity of utterance that had previously graced the concerto.

As Jane Austen puts it in Sense and Sensibility, “To wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect.” That was the problem for Brahms during the early part of his career: the weight of expectations that rested on his shoulders. Seen as the heir apparent to Beethoven in the great German symphonic tradition, he quite simply failed to come up with the goods. In 1870, just six years before his first symphony was eventually published, he wrote in anguish to a friend: “I will never compose a symphony. You have no idea what it feels like to be dogged by that giant.” But what finally emerged after an extraordinarily long gestation period - Brahms was 43, already eight years older than Mozart at his death -  was a giant of a work. Indeed, together with Mahler’s symphony in D major a decade or so later, it is arguably the greatest first symphony ever written.

Fischer’s view of this work is clearly very classical. With an opening chord that mushroomed in terms of sound, underpinned by the weighty eight basses ranged along the back of the platform, and with timpani barely audible, this set out to be an unashamedly string-saturated performance. Indeed, no string detail seemed to escape Fischer’s attention, and with such superbly responsive players who can blame him? Not a hair or whisker was out of place, but there was also nothing to set the heart racing. As the opening movement drew to its close, in which there was no exposition repeat, and after a development section in which the wind and brass struggled to be heard above the heady string sound, one longed for a greater transparency of texture and range of orchestral colour.

And though Fischer whipped up the excitement in the coda to the finale, with torrents of focused sound from the strings, there was no sense of mystery at the start – merely a feeling of tonal suspension – with a very distant horn-call and trombones that hardly made their presence felt.