Despite a particularly cold, icy evening in Montréal, an enthusiastic crowd packed the concert hall to hear the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Currently engaged in an international tour, the orchestra had just come off a concert at the Kennedy Center and would be continuing in the coming days to a concert at Carnegie Hall. While the evening’s audience was undoubtedly excited to hear renowned conductor Ivan Fischer and his visiting orchestra, the opportunity to witness Montréal-native and virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin as a soloist was also part of the appeal. Overall, the concert served up a program of concert-goer favourites with a few unconventional twists.

With the orchestra developed in his vision, Iván Fischer’s approach seems to bring together tradition with unexpected details. An example is the alteration of the players’ setting arrangement with the bass section positioned on risers at the back of the orchestra. Perhaps this kind of alteration contributes to the orchestra’s distinctive sound – dark, rich and warm. The first piece on the program, the overture from Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, served as a showcase of this sound. The horn section shone with a warm, well-blended tone in the long, pastoral melodies performed offstage.  

Next, Marc-André Hamelin took to the stage to perform Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat major. The work makes high demands of the soloist almost from the onset, opening with a piano cadenza in furious octaves. The variation in mood through the work is astounding, shifting from light, playful and impish to the full grandeur of arpeggios that traverse the keyboard. It is clear that Hamelin was up to the task, remaining collected and in control in his trademark fashion throughout. Regardless of the technical demand, Hamelin delivered, executing delicate runs, octaves and trills of great length. Despite technical proficiency, the work overall seemed to be missing a certain emotional dimension. This seemed connected to an overall lack of large-scale direction. Also, the decision to seat the triangle player beside the first violin stand seemed like an odd choice, distracting from the soloist rather than augmenting the theme. Despite these shortcomings, seeing Hamelin at work was a treat, reminiscent of watching a gymnast stick the landing after a particularly challenging routine.

While this Liszt concerto features a great deal of virtuosity from the soloist, Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat major places these demands on the orchestra as a whole. The composer described this symphony as, “a tribute to a humanity that is free and happy – to its strength, generosity and purity of heart.” However, the work is fraught with tension, sorrow and longing, perhaps related to Prokofiev’s experience of life in Soviet Russia. Over the course of the first movement, the joyful melody is gradually eroded by militaristic snare, bass drum and brass. The orchestra seemed to understand this conflict, highlighting the tensions inherent in the music. Fischer conserved his energy more in this symphony than in the concert’s previous works, directing with smaller motions. He kept up the energy of the second movement’s perpetual bassline and guided the melody from low to high registers in the mournful third movement. The fourth movement saw the return of the opening joy, however, delivered incessantly like a fist beating on a table.

Perhaps the most unexpected twist of the night was that the orchestra performed an encore following the Prokofiev, not as an orchestra, but as an impromptu choir. Standing beside their instruments with a single sheet of music in hand, the orchestra sang a 19th-century arrangement of a Russian orthodox hymn. In the moment, there was something special – almost magical – about the piece, a sign of an orchestra that would go above and beyond to display their upmost love of music making. However, I must admit that this feeling was diminished somewhat when I learned that the orchestra performed this work at every concert on its tour. Regardless, this was an example of how a small, out-of-the-ordinary gesture could momentarily elevate an otherwise average concert. Although not every moment sparkled, these surprises will keep the audience talking for some time.