The first of the two programmes presented at the Proms 2014 by Iván Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra featured showpieces from the Habsburg Empire, where Viennese Strauss dances were matched by Brahms’s lively Hungarian Dances and Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, along with the classical insertion of a Mozart March never performed before at the Proms. The selection reflected the different musical tastes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: gypsies, Hungarians, Moravians, along with  more sophisticated Viennese pieces. The core of the concert, however, was Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.

Iván Fischer © Chris Christodoulou
Iván Fischer
© Chris Christodoulou

The concert opened with three of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, which evoked gypsy and Magyar atmospheres. In 1869 Brahms wrote a set of 21 dance tunes based on Hungarian themes. The pieces were originally composed for piano four-hands, and Fischer orchestrated the three presented in the concert for orchestra, by employing a cimbalom and typical Hungarian instruments.

Mozart’s March in D Major (1779) was featured for the first time at the Proms. It was a piece to be performed on special occasions or events such as a regal processions, and  was popular at Austrian student farewell parties, and in celebrations and weddings.

The pièce de résistance of the programme came just before the interval: Franz Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 in B minor, Unfinished. This is a work that has a lot of charm and is quite enjoyable despite its gloomy tones. It begins with a solo oboe accompanied by bass rhythms, then tempestuous winds, fluent strings and loud horns and bassoons overcome. When the second and last completed movement was ended, Fischer asked the audience to listen to the few initial bars of the third movement Schubert had left, and to retain from applauding for some seconds, trying to imagine how the author could possibly have continued.

The second part of the concert opened by drawing on the musical rivalry of Strauss brothers, Josef with his Sphären-Klänge (1868) and Johann II's polka Vergnugüngszug, the  waltz By the Beautiful Blue Danube, and another polka, Bandits' Galop.

Budapest Festival Orchestra © Chris Christodoulou
Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Chris Christodoulou

The two polkas were brilliantly done under Fischer’s conducting while the waltz by Johan II's younger brother Josef sounded sweet and melancholic. The Sphärenklänge Waltz is one of the finest efforts of Josef Strauss, who used more inventiveness in harmonies and more melodic subtleties than his older brother. This is undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated waltz works ever composed by a Strauss. Nonetheless, the Viennese waltz king was Johan Strauss II, and his most famous The Blue Danube has always been regarded as the unofficial anthem of Austria. The execution was greatly entertaining: Fischer conducted it with ample gestures to allow his violinists to take as much time as they wanted, and the orchestra to release a gracious, amazing sound with all the ease they needed.

Dvořák’s Legend no. 10 in B flat minor added on a meditative feeling, opening with a dark tonality, gently moving towards a more melodic shape, while the harmonies warm up.

Finally, in Zoltán Kodály's Dances of Galánta, the orchestra visibly felt at home. The work echoes folk songs that Kodály used to listen to as a young child. With self-confidence and energy, the orchestra gave an exciting performance, full of ethnic tunes. The playing was superb; not only did these musicians show a full  understanding of the idiom they also went beyond technical mastery to give us really virtuosic executions, as in the clarinet solos.

As an encore, Fischer asked some of his musicians to change position and performed the quiet and reflective Možnost, one of Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, which was sung by the female members of the orchestra, finely supported by the string section.

The evening's programme, ranged through the centuries from Mozart and Schubert up to the Strauss brothers and the 1930s showed off a remarkable orchestra, and the astounding level of sensitivity in the response it gives to Iván Fischer, whose intent was to represent not just the sophisticated Austrian aristocracy, but also to show the broad variety of musical styles of ethnic groupings of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as the gypsies, Moravians, and Hungarians. Fischer and his orchestra were capable to give the audience a breath-taking performance, with total concentration and class.