Touring for orchestras is tough enough without an existential threat looming in the wings: days before the Budapest Festival Orchestra under its conductor Iván Fischer embarked on its latest tour, it learned of massive cuts to its funding made by the Hungarian government. Cultural ambassadors of this quality are not exactly two a penny, so for the sake of all these fine musicians one can only hope that such short-sightedness will soon be reconsidered.

Iván Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra © Tom Howard | Barbican
Iván Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Tom Howard | Barbican

There cannot be many other bands that both play and sing like angels; there are few composers with the wit of Haydn to bring smiles to the faces of jaded concertgoers. Following Sir András Schiff’s Beethoven concerto performance, he returned to the platform to play the piano accompaniment for one of Haydn’s partsongs, Die Beredsamkeit, Hob XXVb no.4, in which the words of the poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing are used to telling effect. After references to the wine “that lets us speak”, the final repetition of the word “stumm” at the end of the phrase “but water makes us dumb” was entirely unvoiced, succinctly proving the point. The Budapesters’ vocal skills had already been demonstrated in their a cappella singing of Dvořák’s setting of a Moravian folk poem, Nepovím.

Sometimes just a short musical phrase is enough to demonstrate the qualities of an ensemble. I cannot recall hearing the opening of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance in E minor (from the Op.46 set) delivered with such depth of tone: it was like being given a warm embracing hug. All the natural inflections of dance rhythms were satisfyingly conveyed, the players leaning slightly into the first note of each phrase to give the piece an irresistible lilt. This orchestra is unquestionably one of Europe’s finest. One can almost take the glowing, gleaming strings and the mellowness of the woodwind for granted, but what is especially remarkable are the fine internal balances. This yielded playing of a rare aristocratic quality in the Barbican’s unhelpful acoustic where an uncomfortable glare (but not on this occasion) is often inescapable.

Sir András Schiff, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra © Tom Howard | Barbican
Sir András Schiff, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Tom Howard | Barbican

Schiff’s playing of the Beethoven G major concerto constantly delighted the ear. His pellucid tone, clarity of articulation, magically wrought dynamic shadings and judicious pedalling combined to give this reading the kind of translucent sheen seen on the glaze of the finest Meissen porcelain. This was most apparent in his exchanges with the strings in the slow movement: they gruff, robust and imperious; he uncowed, tender and yet resolute. It was like watching a patient fisherman playing the unruly pike at the end of the line: you knew who would emerge triumphant when the struggle concluded. In the first movement Schiff gave particular prominence to the skipping, almost playful nature of the writing in a concerto often viewed in purely Apollonian terms. In the cadenza, taken quite swiftly, the left hand was at times like a tolling bell, the trills towards its close like the early-morning calls of the blackbird.

This concert began and ended in D minor. The dark and sombre qualities of this key were underlined in the first of Dvořák’s Legends as well in the Seventh Symphony. I have heard many a reading of the latter work with more superficial excitement, but few which revealed the symphonic argument with such cogency and without the risk of overheating. Fischer shaped the inner lines with their individual colour most persuasively: violas rasped rather than merely purring in the Poco adagio movement; the brass crowned instead of swamping (as so often) the richly-veined textures, both in the Scherzo and in the majestic peroration of the concluding coda.

*****