“Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a peasant. I always said so.” Igor Stravinsky was hardly from peasant stock – his father was a leading bass at the Mariinsky Theatre – but Alexander Gromeko’s quip in David Lean’s film of Dr Zhivago rang true throughout the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s two-night stint at the Southbank Centre. And not only in those earthy, early ballets Petrushka and Le Sacre du printemps, but also in the four later neoclassical works that fleshed out Iván Fischer’s riveting pair of programmes.

Iván Fischer conducts the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Parri Thomas

So instead of hearing works like Jeu de cartes or Capriccio played with a glossy sheen, polished within an inch of their lives, here they felt alive. Some were a little ragged in places, to be sure – the first violins parted company within their ranks several times in the first “deal” of Jeu – but they were truly animated. 

All six works across the two evenings were choreographed for the ballet – three by design, three in retrospect – and Fischer accepted the invitation to the dance, lumbering like the Shrovetide Fair's bear, arms flapping limply as the puppet Petrushka, or thrashing as the sacrificial Chosen One at the end of Sacre meets her end. Alas, the flashy syncopations of Capriccio – employed by George Balanchine in Rubies, the sassy middle work of Jewels – didn’t quite induce him into “Tall Girl” lunges. Nicolas Namoradze was the able soloist here, steely-fingered but playful too, enjoying Stravinsky’s jazzy inflections, although you could also see a lot of frantic counting and foot-tapping of rests from the orchestra in a work that must be unfamiliar territory to them. 

Fischer is always imaginative in his orchestral layouts, the Budapest double basses lined up along the rear of the platform. In the Violin Concerto, the brass section (minus the French horns) took up positions usually occupied by the front desks of the strings. In Capriccio, a single double bass joined the viola section as a sort of continuo section. For Petrushka, the piano was centrally placed, trumpet cheek-by-jowl with the bassoons, percussion split across the stage. 

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Parri Thomas

Jeu de cartes was Fischer’s opening gambit in the first concert, its three deals representing hands of cards in which the Joker plays havoc. Although rhythms were not always crisp, the humour emerged strongly with its chuckling Rossini quote and flatulent tuba gag. The Concerto in D was the amuse-bouche in the second evening, the three movement string orchestra work composed for the 20th anniversary of Paul Sacher’s Basel Chamber Orchestra. Unanimity of attack wasn’t always evident here either, but the frenetic scurrying in the finale buzzed like a swarm of irritated bees. 

Bare-footed and in a dress featuring a leaf motif and flames that wouldn’t go amiss in Sacre, Patricia Kopatchinskaja gave a most exhilarating performance of the Violin Concerto. Often crouching low over her music stand, she tore into the work with violent abandon, her coarse, grainy tone dragging Stravinsky back to his Russian roots. Spiccato effects spat from her bow and her pizzicatos were directed at the orchestra in an almost accusatory manner. Her connection to the ensemble was remarkably engaged, often turning towards them and listening closely. This extended into her earthy encore where she joined co-leader István Kádár for two of Béla Bartók’s duos for two violins. She was later seen dancing the night away in the Clore Ballroom when members of the orchestra played traditional Hungarian and Transylvanian folk music. 

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Parri Thomas

Each concert was crowned by memorable performances of two of Stravinsky’s Diaghilev ballets. With Fischer as puppet master, Petrushka came to life in striking fashion, the conductor relishing the grungy dissonances, basses growling, the percussion uncouth. Every phrase was shaped with character, Fischer drawing the ear to the unusual orchestration, trumpet, flute and bassoon sounding properly grotesque in the Ballerina’s awkward waltz. The trumpets didn’t escape without mishaps at the end, when Petrsuhka’s ghost rises and shakes his angry fists, but when the performance is so animated, who cares? 

Last night, punches were landed in The Augurs of Spring, Fischer seeming to throw left hooks as he shuddered on the podium, but this Sacre was remarkable not for its decibels – other orchestras can treat it like a war machine, flattening everything in its path – but for the details Fischer teased from the work’s quieter passages. Rarely has the opening to Part 2 sounded more eerie, more disconcerting, while the bassoons intoned the Evocation of the Ancestors like Orthodox chant. As if to make the point – and as promised in the pre-performance chat – the orchestra set down their instruments for the encore, Stravinsky’s Ave Maria, movingly sung to close an often thrilling mini-residency.

****1