The second performance of the season on its home turf of the oft-travelled Budapest Festival Orchestra rekindled a not-so-distant past despite the mask-wearing spectators and the many empty seats. Here was a full-length evening with a real interval, not one of those foreshortened acts with chamber orchestras spread out on a full stage that popped up in the months immediately follow the Covid-induced hiatus in the world’s musical life.

Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Budapest Festival Orchestra

The programme that Iván Fischer selected juxtaposed two well-known works that, nevertheless, are not considered among their composers’ most remarkable creations. Composed a little more than a century apart, both catalogued Op.60, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos are clearly less daring and “revolutionary” than some of their earlier works.

Surrounded by true peaks – the Third and Fifth symphonies, the Razumovsky quartets, the “Appassionata” Sonata or the Fourth Piano Concerto – Beethoven's B flat major symphony is more backward- than forward-looking and Fischer didn’t have any qualms underlying its classicism, its nods to Haydn. From the slow introduction to the joviality of the moto perpetuo in the Finale, he maintained tight control of the rhythmical transformations of various motifs. The music moved inexorably forward in short waves. Textures were always clear and distinguished solo interventions (such as Principal Clarinet Ács Ákos in the Adagio) were exquisitely integrated in the well-oiled ensemble’s output.

A “post-modern” synthesis avant la lettre, mixing elements from opera seria and commedia dell’arte, Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos also keenly looks back to the art of the past. Ignoring the opera’s intrinsic ambiguities, Fischer focused instead on the musical richness of two meaningful fragments. In the aria “Es gibt ein Reich wo alles rein ist”, Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, readies herself to be taken by the Gods’ messenger, Hermes, to the land of Death where everything is pure. The music has a Wagnerian sense of the monumental with Hermes’ leitmotif moving from the basses to the oboes to the soprano’s line. The soloist, Tünde Szabóki displayed a certain lack of passion in her lament. Her voice sounded tentative, lacking depth and brilliance, especially in the upper register. She sounded more confident in Ariadne’s duet with Bacchus, in the opera’s final scene, and her attempts to spin the long Straussian lines were more successful. Szabóki’s voice still lacked the brilliance, energy and youthfulness pervading the interventions of the three, Rhinemaiden-inspired nymphs: Naiad (Samantha Gaul), Echo (Mirella Hagen) and Dryad (Olivia Vermeulen). Tenor Roberto Saccà does not possess the most resonant voice, but, as Bacchus, he displayed passion and conviction and sang with effortless legato.

Fischer employed a standard ensemble in Beethoven’s symphony (with eight cellos and six double basses marking the centre axis), but the Ariadne excerpts were presented with reduced musical forces (just four cellos and two basses). The soloists were thus allowed to readily express their confusions, hopes and longings. The tiniest orchestral details – violin, oboe and horn solos or a clarinet and bassoon duo – were discernible with tremendous clarity. The unmistakable Straussian idiom was heard in all its glory.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream.