Iván Fischer has distinguished himself as a conductor with inimitable listening skills; he truly has an ear for which sounds should be coming from where and how the sounds of each member of the Budapest Festival Orchestra should be arranged in space. Their Sunday afternoon concert was one of the most acoustically rewarding I’ve heard at Avery Fisher Hall. Mr Fischer and the performers achieved seemingly the lowest threshold between human and sound, so that for the most part the notes did not sound recited but rather as if they were flowing directly from the minds and bodies of the musicians.

Anna Lucia Richter © Jessy Lee | Nordic Artists Management
Anna Lucia Richter
© Jessy Lee | Nordic Artists Management

The bulk of the concert consisted of Brahms’ Symphony no. 3 in F major. With the basses arrayed against the back wall behind the woodwinds, and the violas sounding richer than chocolate cake, the Budapest Festival Orchestra brought the symphony to life not just with acoustic and technical accuracy but with animation. Mr Fischer drew melodies delicately in the air with his baton, coaxing specific sounds from specific players but never veering too far into meticulous exactitude. The stage was transformed into a churning sea of swaying shoulders and tossing heads. During the first movement the pizzicatos were like raindrops splashing onto puddles formed by flute melodies; the second movement elicited a sense of discovery, as if the notes were being hauled up from the depths and marveled at. The only weak section was the beloved third movement, which came across as less precise and even slightly muddled at first, but which regained precision towards its end. And with the bustle of the fourth movement, the orchestra leapt away from this pervasive aquatic feel –no more water, all fire – until the final placid chord.

Slightly less energetic was Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, though the connection between Mr Fischer and the orchestra was still palpable. Although Mr Fischer was much more attentive to the soloist, Isabelle Faust, than to the orchestra, I quickly realized the level of understanding, to the point that the orchestra seemed to heed and respond to every flick of the wrist. During the opening the orchestral accompaniment was kept at a minimum, Mr Fischer’s left palm up as if to hold them back, before they were given reign to balloon up and fill the hall with sound. All parties involved were not only animated but listening intently, through the slow movement as smooth as velvet and on to the brisk tempo of the third. And even though Ms Faust’s tone occasionally drooped into thinness, the BFO’s sound remained as round and bright as the timpani drum in the back right corner of the stage.

Even taking the Brahms into consideration, the high points of the evening came from Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister Fanny. Mr Fischer chose to begin the program with three songs from Fanny’s vast output, over 400 mostly unpublished works which scholars are still sorting through. Mr Fischer pointed out that “Fanny had so many restrictions during her lifetime, and she deserves special recognition today”, and then encouraged more and more women to compose. (Mr Fischer’s plea was admirable, though I would argue that the problem is not so much that women are not composing as that institutions are not listening – for instance, the Metropolitan Opera across the plaza has not programmed a woman composer in over a century.)

Soprano Anna Lucia Richter joined the orchestra for “Die Mainacht”, “Ferne” and “Gondellied”, her young voice shining throughout though clearly it has not reached its full potential quite yet. Her diction and expression were admirable and during the final song her voice shimmered like a reflection on the smooth glassy strings. In other hands the songs might have come across as placating, like a throwaway intro to give the stragglers time to make it for the concerto and symphony. But Mr Fischer, Ms Richter and the orchestra maintained a seriousness of tone and demeanor, even during the playfully arpeggiating flute section of “Gondellied”, that gave Fanny her full weight.

I was still nervous that Fanny Mendelssohn’s nine minutes on the program would get overshadowed by the subsequent concerto and symphony, but I needn’t have worried. After an appropriate amount of applause following the Brahms symphony, Mr Fischer resumed the podium to announce an encore: another song of Fanny Mendelssohn’s, “Morgengruß” from her song cycle Gartenlieder. Ms Richter returned to the stage, and all musicians joined her in singing this charming tune. With this encore, Mr Fischer refused to let Fanny’s music – and the unheard, unwritten works of women everywhere – be forgotten.

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