Iván Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra in impassioned performances of Dohnányi, Beethoven and Brahms to an appreciative, if criminally small, audience in Manchester.

More than any other Music Director one could think of, Fischer has a large claim to the BFO being his orchestra. Since founding the orchestra in 1983, he has been its only chief and has guided it to wide acclaim. Many would question the value of orchestra league tables, but it must say something that such a youthful enterprise made its way to ninth in the world in one such table a couple of years ago.

The Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major, actually written after “no. 2” (in B flat), is a work of unusual scale for early Beethoven, with a first movement to rival the Emperor Concerto for scale. There were a few oddities before the performance, though. The woodwinds dispersed themselves around the front of the strings: oboes where second desk of first violins would usually sit, clarinets in front of second violins to Fischer’s right, bassoons in front of cellos and flute between bassoons and oboes. Half the orchestra then tuned to a G, before the others took up the conventional A. The brass reappeared sporting natural horns and trumpets, and the timpani were of the older, hand-tuned variety.

It was slightly strange, then, that the concerto was far from being a “period” performance, with rather too much warmth and fluidity from the large string section for that label to apply. It was, however, superbly well done, from crisp opening march to brash finale. Imogen Cooper shone with an elegant performance from the piano. She mostly eschewed grand displays of power, instead enjoying emphasising and prolonging the softer moments. The giant first-movement cadenza was well paced in moving from recaps of the orchestra’s preceding material to showier, virtuosic material. The gentle slow movement was nicely understated, with a few subtle fluctuations in pulse allowing the best moments to loiter. One such, midway through the Largo, was the hushed breathing of the strings in accompaniment. Another was at the very first note of the finale, where Cooper momentarily lingered on the upbeat before launching into a quick tempo, subtly cushioning the transition from the softness of the second movement. The clarity in the third movement, from piano and middle strings in their semiquavers, brought a tremendous sense of driving energy to the music to finish a very fine, if slightly strange, performance.

Brahms’ Fourth Symphony got the sort of richly romantic outing that leaves one stricken at the end. Fischer seemed to have little to do other than provide shape and long structure. From the outset his beating was minimal (occasionally drifting into one-in-a-bar), instead allowing the strings to give autumnal colour to the opening melody. The orchestra’s string sound, quite slow in attack but with a shimmering brightness, proved ideal for this. The slow tempo made for a sense of dignity, the bright woodwind interjections offering only glimmers of optimism at quiet dynamics. The intensity developed steadily through the movement to give a very dramatic climax, but a subtle diminuendo on the last note suggested a shying away from this, paving the way for a beautifully doleful slow movement. The sense of stillness was very strong here, to the extent that even the bold tutti triplets were unable to change the atmosphere for long.

The third movement, by far the brightest of the symphony, maintained a steady, heavy feel which despite the brass festivities seemed to be constantly aware of the other three movements. The only convincing and lasting optimism was hard-won, coming from the horns’ broader theme. This movement can sometimes be mistaken for the end of the symphony, but somehow that seemed impossible tonight. Although the energy increased towards the end, there was a strong sense that something else would have to happen to resolve the tensions set up earlier. The finale obliged, passing from unsettled unease through a beautiful flute solo, moving redemption in the trombone chorale and finally a tragic end. Fischer’s direction was utterly convincing, and the result was an engaging, deeply moving and coherent whole.

The only unfamiliar work in an otherwise quite safe programme was Ernő Dohnányi’s 1933 set of orchestral miniatures, the Symphonic Minutes. Rather like a mini concerto for orchestra, the five-movement suite gives ample solo material to all sections. All were impressive, particularly the woodwind soloists. The cor anglais’ moment in the Tema con Variazioni was beautifully articulate in soft interaction with the celeste. Elsewhere the orchestral sound hinted at the beauty to be heard later.

With the gallery closed and the rest of the hall perhaps half-full, the poor attendance for this brilliant orchestra reflected badly on the city, and more will surely have to be done to entice audiences to the International Concert Series. Those who were there gave a noisy ovation, to which Fischer responded with a burlesque encore of Brahms’ seventh Hungarian Dance. It was just a shame that more didn’t hear it.